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Church drills wells, but will Crystal River drink?

(ran PW edition of Pasco Times)

Tucked under slender pines lining County Road 495, surrounded by a chain-link fence secured with a padlock, prosperity waits to be unleashed.

In a state that is growing at breakneck speed, water is more than just an essential natural resource. To developers, it is liquid gold.

For the owners of hundreds of empty acres in northwest Citrus County, land where the proposed Suncoast Parkway may one day cross, a steady supply of fresh water is the difference between being allowed to put up a few single homes on large tracts or gaining approval for dense subdivisions.

Key to those dreams are two new wells that have been drilled for Crystal River United Methodist Church on CR 495, just north of the city limits.

If the wells were connected to the city's water supply, and if the developers could link up, zoning restrictions could fall away while the value of the property would skyrocket.

For the city, having the wells as part of its water system would create new utility customers, enhance annexation efforts and improve fire protection. The wells could also shore up the city's dwindling water supply, set to reach capacity in 2012.

But getting the wells will not be cheap. Aside from reimbursing the church for its costs, the city would also pay $30,000 for land easements, plus $325,000 for a 500,000-gallon storage tank.

Running pipes to the wells would cost another $277,000. And that does not include the cost of sewer lines, which the city would probably want to install in the future.

Still, some in city government believe it is worth the cost. "When we see that corridor explode, people are going to want sewer and water right away," said City Manager Phil Lilly.

The church would also benefit. It would recoup the $142,000 spent on the wells through credits for future hookups to the city system and for water use.

It's an arrangement in which every party seems to win.

Some, though, could win more than others. The landowners, most notably, stand to reap a substantial windfall.

With the restrictive zoning in place near the wells now, land generally sells for between $2,500 and $5,000 an acre, according to the property appraiser's office. Current zoning limits density to one home for every 10 acres.

Add central water and sewer, however, and an acre could go for $10,000 or more. And the density could climb to two homes per acre. Instead of 10 new houses on 100 acres, there could be 200 of them.

On Monday night, the City Council will consider taking over the wells. How they got to this point is an example of how complicated deals sometimes fall into place in a city where the distinctions between public and private roles can be blurred.