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Published Oct. 28, 2008

Usually, it's a routine step in the approval of a big subdivision:

A developer asks county agencies if they can provide the project with needed services and facilities - schools and roads, for example.

Almost always, at least after negotiations, the agencies say yes.

That's why Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Michael Hensley's response to such a request is something of a blockbuster:

"Given the reality of this year's budget ... and the uncertainty of future funding, we are not able to commit to providing adequate law enforcement services to the proposed project,'' Hensley wrote about the 4,200-acre Quarry Preserve development planned for north of Brooksville.

Or, as translated by Sheriff Richard Nugent: "We're saying no.''

That was true a year ago, when the letter was written, he said; it will remain true for all large projects - called developments of regional impact - until the County Commission agrees to pay for at least 1.7 deputies per every 1,000 residents.

Partly because this year's budget didn't allow him to hire new deputies, Nugent said, that ratio has slipped below 1.5 per 1,000.

"What we're saying is, the board has to come up with a plan to help stabilize service with the population,'' he said.

I know what you're thinking: Nugent is using his political muscle to guarantee still more money for one of the few county agencies that received a budget increase this year.

Yes, probably so. But he is also recognizing a truth that applies to everything from school buses to sewer lines: Sprawl is expensive.

Theoretically, houses generate enough money in impact fees and property taxes to equip and hire needed deputies.

That doesn't work out when projects are spread across the county - especially when so many are only partly built out.

Deputies spend more time driving more miles to keep an eye on the same number of houses. Neighbors are too far apart to discourage crimes such as the burglaries of building supplies and appliances that have plagued Royal Highlands, Nugent said.

And residents are less likely to be homeowners with a long-term investment in the community. Luis Guillen, for example, the 36-year-old man fatally shot after a confrontation with a deputy last week, lived in a rented house in Sterling Hill, a gated community.

Maybe you don't think the approval of the Quarry Preserve is an urgent issue. It won't come before the commission for at least a year, and construction may be delayed for several more years by the stalled housing market.

And, probably, the sheriff's concerns will be resolved long before then, possibly by the developer agreeing to pay for extra deputies.

"That's one way to skin the cat,'' said Jake Varn, the Tallahassee lawyer representing the landowner, Florida Rock Industries.

But I think the project is big enough - a self-contained city with offices and industry, 5,800 houses and 200 resort units - to be worth thinking about now.

Also, in Florida, you can never escape the issue of thoughtless growth - clogged roads, overburdened teachers, thousands of homes on septic tanks rather than sewer lines.

In other words, for too long, too many people in Nugent's position said yes when they should have said no.