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City cuts back its annexing ambitions

The City Council, which the county has long criticized as having overly ambitious expansion plans, voted last week to approve a future annexation area far smaller than a previous one.

The city wanted to define an area that it could reasonably provide with utilities and other city services within the next five to 10 years, said City Manager Richard Anderson. It also wanted to soothe the county's concerns.

"The whole idea is to be able to sit down with the county and talk intelligently (about the city's growth)," Anderson said.

But just as the city and county seem to be settling their long-running disagreement over development surrounding Brooksville, the feud may reignite.

The County Commission is set to discuss a city policy it has long opposed: when landowners outside the city sign up for Brooksville's sewer and water service, the city requires them to sign an agreement allowing the city the right to annex their property.

Commission Chairwoman Diane Rowden asked that the commission discuss the matter at today's meeting, partly because of a letter Mayor Joe Johnston sent to the county on Feb. 7.

In his letter, he let it be known that he objected to the county objecting to the city policy. If it continued, he wrote, the city might void a rare point of agreement, a 2003 deal designating how much area outside Brooksville the city had the right to provide with water and sewer service.

The city and county agreed to the district, which covers about 50 square miles around the city, to avoid the expensive prospect of the city and county racing to lay lines to potential large customers.

But Johnston said state law allows the city the right to serve customers in a larger area, anywhere within five miles of its boundaries, and would do so if the county continued to object to its annexation policy.

"If the county desires to terminate the (2003) agreement, I will request that the city re-evaluate the option of extending services to other areas . . . within the five mile limit," Johnston wrote.

Anderson has defended the annexation policy in the past, saying new residents and businesses near the city will use its roads and parks. Therefore, he said, they should pay property taxes to support a full range of services.

Last year, the city inflamed the county's concerns about its expansion plans by designating the entire utility service zone as an "urban growth" area that was potentially ripe for annexation. This area stretched northward to include a large area of current mining land and well into the rural southeastern part of the county.

Designating the smaller area is the first step of defining a smaller, short-term annexation area, Anderson said. County departments will now take the next step, he said, developing detailed plans to serve the new area.

This includes the expected eastern expansion of the Southern Hills property almost to Emerson Road as well as rural properties, such as the former Milk-A-Way Farms dairy, where a South Florida developer plans to build a subdivision.

In these cases, Johnston said, the landowners have voluntarily come to the city to discuss annexation.

But representatives of some landowners, such as those planning to build a shopping center and apartment complex and a shopping center off Wiscon Road, have said at county meetings that the city policy may force it into Brooksville - and into paying the city's additional property taxes.

Rowden said that she does not know what action the commission might take at today's meeting other than set up a future meeting with the county and discuss the legality of the city's policy.

That legality is questionable, said Assistant County Attorney Kent Weissinger.

A landowner's power to choose whether or not to be annexed, he said "is part of the bundle of rights you have as a property owner."

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