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Commission majority not in the right zone

To no one's surprise, the Citrus County Commission has decided to appeal a judge's recent ruling against the county in the Halls River Retreat case.

Of course, commissioners were going to challenge the blistering decision. The other option would have been for the board to accept Circuit Judge Jack Springstead's conclusion that they erred when they approved plans for the condominium complex. That certainly was not going to happen.

Last Tuesday, after nearly two hours of pained posturing by three commissioners and a compliant staff, the board decided to appeal in an 3-2 vote that mirrored the Feb. 12 decision that got them into trouble in the first place.

Before the vote, the commissioners whose actions Springstead scolded _ Jim Fowler, Josh Wooten and Roger Batchelor _ complained that the judge had overreached his authority, misunderstood the county's arguments, and set himself up as the county's "sixth commissioner" by greatly restricting their options in land-use cases.

The ruling, they said, jeopardized the future of nearly 27,000 parcels of property in the county and could impact land-use decisions throughout the entire state.

The triumvirate complained that their arguments were ignored, that their rights were trampled, and that the decision spells doom for the county. Ironically, they echoed the frustration that people throughout the county have voiced for nearly a year about the three commissioners themselves.

After the three were finished with their heavy breathing, commissioners Gary Bartell and Vicki Phillips began puncturing the arguments.

Isn't it true that the ruling will apply only within the 5th Judicial Circuit, and not the entire state, they asked? Well, yeah, the county attorney conceded.

To pre-empt citizen complaints that the appeal would be a waste of time and money, the three commissioners and the legal staff had said repeatedly that the legal work, expected to take about eight months, would be handled in-house and would cost only a $169.50 filing fee.

Unless Assistant County Attorney Michele Slingerland, who will be handling the case and who will have to shift her other duties to County Attorney Robert Battista, is working for free, the cost obviously will be substantially more than $169.50.

But those are mere side issues. The nub of the appeal is the commission majority's belief that one sentence of Springstead's ruling will tie the county's hands on land-use decisions. It reads: "Where the proposed use is more intensive or of a different type from that designated, the use is inconsistent with the plan."

That seems like a fairly simple and accurate articulation of the spirit of the county's growth management plan. But, as this long-running case has demonstrated, nothing is simple.

Gary Maidhof, the director of Development Services, explained to the commissioners how the process works. A parcel may hold one zoning designation on the Land Development Code map (its zoning today) and another on the county's Generalized Future Land Use Map (what the county is supposed to look like down the road).

Sometimes, the designations are different. The judge said that, in such cases, new developments must be consistent with the comprehensive plan's generalized map.

The three commissioners howled that the ruling would limit the development on thousands of properties around the county. That would lead, they said, to those property owners suing the county. And, of course, they all would prevail. "There's not enough money in the state of Florida to pay for the damages the taxpayers of this county would be liable for," Fowler warned.

Is the county really in such peril? Of course not.

As Times reporter Bridget Hall Grumet detailed on Sunday, the 26,737 parcels fall into four categories, with the vast majority, 26,003, under coastal lakes residential. What is the worst that could happen if Springstead's ruling were to stand? New homes in those areas could still be built, but they would be slightly smaller, covering 25 percent of the lot instead of 35 percent.

That's it. Pretty scary stuff.

For the 600 or so properties in two of the remaining categories, the worst that could happen is that the businesses already there could not expand. Since they are in either coastal areas or in the so-called mixed-use zones, they would face restrictions anyway.

The final category impacts about 85 sites in the central ridge part of the county, and even Maidhof says any changes would be inconsequential.

There you have it. The ruling would mean few changes, if any, and certainly not the cataclysmic problems the commissioners moaned about on Tuesday. Springstead's single sentence simply reiterated the basic philosophy of growth management: The county has a growth plan and it must follow it.

As to whether Springstead overstepped his bounds, his ruling spells out the three-prong test he used to evaluate the commission's Feb. 12 actions: Was due process afforded the public? Were the essential requirements of law observed? Were the findings supported by competent, substantial evidence? The ruling is long not because he "reweighed the evidence," but because he explained the details that led to his decision.

The case now goes to the 5th District Court of Appeal. Interestingly, Springstead cited a decision by that same panel in his ruling. While that case focused only on the rights of citizens to be heard at a public hearing, it may signal a philosophy by that panel to hold counties to their obligations to protect citizens' rights by abiding by their own rules, such as following their growth management plans.

What's next? Months from now, the DCA will either uphold Springstead's ruling or accept all or part of the appeal. If that were to happen, the case would go back to Springstead, who already has signaled his views on this issue.

Why, then, would the county bother to appeal a ruling that says it has to follow its own growth plan? Why would commissioners use such scare tactics to mislead residents? Because not doing so would mean admitting they made mistakes. It also would mean that the vocal opponents of the project, the people from what Wooten has called that "small hole in Homosassa," were right all along.

Besides, what's there to lose in filing an appeal?

After all, it only costs $169.50.