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Brooksville's feud with county deepens

Ray Chiaramonte knows from experience what happens when local governments cooperate on planning issues.

When a city and county present a united front, developers cannot play one against the other in search of the most lucrative concessions.

Water and sewer service is provided by the local government that can do it most efficiently, not the one that makes the best deal with a builder or wins the race to build pipelines.

And if planners are not busy squabbling, they can draw up a unified comprehensive plan that makes sense for an entire region, not just the jurisdiction they represent.

"Any time you can work together in a more cooperative environment, where developers are not playing one side against the other, it's a positive thing," said Chiaramonte, assistant executive director of the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission; the agency serves the county as well as Tampa and nearby cities.

Hernando residents don't have to look south to find examples of the bad things that happen when cities and counties refuse to work together.

The two-year feud between Hernando County and the city of Brooksville has shown signs of deepening in recent weeks as the stakes grow increasingly higher. Among the recent developments:

+ Two weeks ago, the county sued Brooksville, claiming the city had tailored its zoning laws to accommodate the developers of the 999-home Southern Hills Plantation; this is the third time the two sides have fought in court since the start of 2002.

+ On June 17, the county turned down the city's offer to make a joint bid for Florida Water Services Inc., setting up a potential bidding war between the two governments.

+ To convince Southern Hills to annex into the city, Brooksville made concessions in a development agreement signed in May that will cost city taxpayers for years, according to county officials.

These disagreements follow previous fights about service areas for fire protection as well as for sewer and water service.

They come even as representatives on both sides increasingly acknowledge what experts say is a basic rule of planning: competing to serve developers _ or to buy utilities _ works to the advantage of private companies and against the public interest.

Better cooperation "would certainly be the best way to handle it since we all do live in the same county and hopefully we want the best for the residents," said County Commissioner Diane Rowden.

Yet neither she nor anyone working for the city or county had any firm ideas on how to repair their damaged relationship.

That is particularly true, said city officials, since the county shot down what they considered to be a sincere proposal to form a joint utility commission.

City Attorney David La Croix suggested the idea two weeks ago, when the city asserted it was still interested in buying Florida Water, a private utility that serves 33,000 customers in Hernando.

In addition to presenting a joint bid for the utility, he said, the commission would set rates and guide the expansion of service. That would allow for better planning than the current system of "racing out to prospective clients," La Croix said.

County officials rejected the proposal emphatically the next day, with County Attorney Garth Coller describing the offer as "unbelievable and scurrilous."

The reaction surprised city council members and staffers.

"I didn't expect everyone to start yelling about it," said City Manager Dick Anderson, adding he at least expected the county would discuss the idea.

"Rather than argue about all this stuff, why not set up some sort of board and we would have a regional authority and have it run on a regional basis?"

Though Rowden said she sees some merit in that idea, she and other commissioners think there is an easier way to avoid a bidding war: Because none of the utility's customers live in the city, Brooksville should bow out altogether.

Also, La Croix's proposal called for an equal number of commission members from the city and the county, though the county's population is many times larger.

"You read that and you think, "Where are these people coming from?' " Rowden said.

When she and other county representatives want to cite the consequences of competing for development, they point to Southern Hills Plantation, a subdivision of houses, a golf course and commercial and office space.

The company behind Southern Hills, LandMar Group LLC, originally came to the county. Although the city claims the county was hostile to the idea of the development, Rowden said they were simply being patient. The county didn't immediately offer concessions, she said, because it didn't need to.

"If a (developer) wants to come to your area bad enough, you don't have to give them all that stuff," Rowden said. "They know the market is ripe, and they know they are going to make a whole lot of money. A whole lot of money."

The concessions, she said, included a broad exemption from the city tree ordinance and offers to pay for half of a new sewage treatment plant, as well as impact fee reimbursements for the cost of the other half of the plant and for the cost of building a road through Southern Hills.

City Council member Joe Johnston III said the conditions are not substantially different from the ones the county worked out with Hernando Oaks, a slightly smaller subdivision across the street from Southern Hills.

"They're saying we did the same thing they did with Hernando Oaks, and apparently, they can do it and we can't," Johnston said.

Larry Jennings, director of the county's planning department, said the differences were significant. The county granted Hernando Oaks no breaks on transportation impact fees. Also, said Assistant County Attorney Jeff Kirk, the city basically made zoning policy to accommodate Southern Hills, which is the basis of the lawsuit; on Tuesday, the commission voted to try to mediate the agreement before proceeding further with the case.

Meanwhile, other developers intend to follow LandMar's example, and extract the best deals possible from the county and the city. Tom Bronson, part of the team building Majestic Oaks, a subdivision planned for east of the city, said last month that he and his associates had not yet decided whether to annex into the city or seek utility services from the county.

"We're going to look at both and see which one has the best offers and see which way to go," he said.

Gary Schraut, a developer and real estate agent, said he likes the idea of the city and county competing for his projects.

"When you only have one dog in the hunt, you are at the mercy of the government," he said.

As a member of the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council, he said the agency could help resolve the differences, if the city and county asked it to.

"If they are truly looking for a solution, then that might be a way to address it," Schraut said.

"But if this is a situation where the city wants to expand to U.S. 19 and the county wants to stop them, then there is no solution."

_ Dan DeWitt covers politics, the environment and the city of Brooksville and can be reached at 754-6116 or dewittsptimes.com.

Better cooperation "would certainly be the best way to handle it since we all do live in the same county and hopefully we want the best for the residents," said County Commissioner Diane Rowden. But officials are struggling to find a way to repair their relationship.

"I didn't expect everyone to start yelling about it," City Manager Dick Anderson said of the idea for a joint bid for the utility.

City Council member Joe Johnston III says the Southern Hills conditions are like those the county had with Hernando Oaks.

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