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5-foot strip jeopardizes annexation

A narrow piece of land lies between an area Tampa annexed last year and one it wants to annex.

When Hillsborough County officials looked at the fine print of a controversial annexation deal in New Tampa, they made a little discovery that could have a big impact on the future of the area.

It seems that a 5-foot strip of land could stand in the way of Mayor Dick Greco's annexation plans.

The strip is on the northern edge of Heritage Isles, a U.S. Home development annexed by the city last year, next to the 2,300-acre K-Bar Ranch the city is considering annexing.

Because the city can annex only land that touches its current city limits, the city could be barred from annexing K-Bar Ranch.

U.S. Home kept the 5-foot strip out of the city when the annexation deal was done last year. That gives the company a commanding position in future annexation talks involving K-Bar Ranch, said Assistant County Administrator Ed Hunzeker.

State law forbids annexations from being done in a leapfrog manner, creating "enclaves" or islands of unincorporated property.

"When we looked at the dimensions of the property that was in the transaction we were dealing with, then compared what was recorded in the annexation, there was indeed a difference between the land owned and the land annexed," Hunzeker said.

The county looked at the details of the annexation while studying 46 acres that former Hillsborough Chief Judge Guy W. Spicola has offered to sell to the county.

County officials are unsure why U.S. Home kept the 5-foot strip out of the city.

"Without confirmation from the property owner regarding their intent for leaving this five-foot "spite strip' any statement would be at best a supposition," senior assistant county attorney Mary Helen Campbell wrote in her report to the commission.

"We can only speculate," Hunzeker said. So he did: "U.S. Home has assured themselves of being at the table if there are ever any discussions of annexation of the K-Bar Ranch."

Attorneys for U.S. Home and the city could not be reached for comment.

In her report, Campbell noted that there is no legal precedent addressing the issue of whether a strip of land such as the one at Heritage Isles constitutes an enclave.

Commissioners directed County Attorney Emmy Acton and County Administrator Dan Kleman to make recommendations on the Spicola property and on some policy ideas relating to annexations in general in the next 30 days.

They hope to shed some light on the eternal question of whether "development pays for itself" and whether the county wants to continue to lose parts of growing New Tampa to the city.

In the very first days of her first term on the commission, Ronda Storms said she recalls the annexation issue coming up during orientation sessions.

"I asked, "What's the big deal? Why are we arguing? You're always saying development doesn't pay for itself so why don't you just let them have it?' " Storms said, reminding her colleagues she was partly joking.

"And the Planning Commission people were all nodding their heads. We need to have a policy."

Last year, the county was negotiating a deal with Heritage Isles developers when Greco and the city offered a deal that was $4-million sweeter, Hunzeker said. That was the amount developers saved in fees and infrastructure payments.

County Commissioner Ben Wacksman wondered aloud about the city "cherry-picking" profitable parcels to include in its boundaries.

"We should take a look at all the reasons that's happening," he said.