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REGULATE GROWTH, OR NOT?

A Marion County case before Crist and the Cabinet may have far-reaching implications.

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet are scheduled to decide on Tuesday whether 400 acres of rolling horse country outside Ocala can be developed into about 800 homes.

It's a minor agenda matter for Florida's top elected officials, but one with major implications for the future of the state's growth management policy.

The issue is simple: Does Marion County need more homes?

The state's growth management agency says no. The developers say that regardless of need, they should get to build on land that is theirs. Big guns, including the Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, are lobbying on the developer's behalf.

Tom Pelham, head of the Department of Community Affairs, said it's no accident that an innocuous subdivision in the middle of the state has attracted such high-powered attention in Tallahassee.

"This case has become a stalking horse for special interests who want to eliminate the needs requirement," Pelham said. "But if you remove the needs requirement or weaken it, you might as well close up the growth management shop."

It took two Marion County residents with no legal training and limited financial resources to bring the issue to a boiling point.

Susan Woods and Karen Lynn Recio kept challenging the project after it was approved by the county and, initially, the state.

Woods will be in the Cabinet chambers Tuesday, repeating what she has said for two years: In a county where home prices have plummeted and completed subdivisions stand vacant, there is no need for 800 more homes.

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All of her adult life, Susan Woods has made a modest living from her passion for horses. She and her husband, Bill, teach and judge dressage, an equine routine that involves precise movements by both rider and horse.

Their 11.5-acre farm west of Interstate 75 is small by Marion County standards: five horses, one rusty tractor, a home the couple built for $35,000 about 20 years ago. Bill Woods travels the state teaching dressage skills. Susan Woods, 58, maintains the horses and, to make ends meet, works part-time as a librarian.

In spring 2007, she learned of plans to turn a heavily wooded parcel just down the road from her home into a subdivision. Instead of allowing just one home for every 10 acres, the change would permit construction of two homes per acre.

The land is just a fraction of the acreage amassed in Marion County by Bernard Castro, founder of Castro Convertibles sofa company, since the 1950s. His granddaughter, Terri Keogh, a lawyer in Long Island, has spearheaded the project.

Woods, an amateur hydrologist who can point out the karsts and sinkholes that dot Marion County's limestone bedrock, knew one section of the 400-acre parcel regularly flooded. She couldn't stand the idea that the new development would turn her two-lane road into a four-lane highway. And with the real estate bust well under way, she couldn't understand why new homes were needed.

"There's no common sense being used in this," Woods said. "It really bothered me. But I had no idea what I was getting into."

Going door to door to gather support, Woods met Recio, whose property abuts the planned development. They were reassured when the county's own staff recommended the project be rejected. The northwest section of the county where the subdivision was planned was losing population, at a rate of 2.33 percent a year, the staff report said. Planners also noted that several subdivisions in the area had more than 1,700 home sites approved but never developed.

At a five-hour County Commission meeting in May 2007, dozens of residents spoke out against the proposal. Several commissioners chimed in with their own concerns. But when it came to a vote, they approved it, 3-2.

Within months, the state's Department of Community Affairs, or DCA, signed off.

Woods and Recio discovered they had the right to challenge the project before the Division of Administrative Hearings. With no money to hire a lawyer, Woods took the lead in preparing for the trial-like proceeding, with Recio giving moral support.

They sold T-shirts for $50 to cover photocopying costs. Their biggest expense was the helicopter rented when they found the developers had started moving dirt while the challenge was pending. After Woods' aerial photos were sent to the state, the bulldozing stopped.

Woods spent hours on the phone with friendly attorneys who gave her tips on how to make her case and interrogate witnesses. "They laid out the bread crumbs for me to follow," said Woods, a graduate of Brown University. "I would be plodding along and people would appear to give me the help I needed."

Woods and Recio got an enormous boost when the DCA attorney preparing for the hearing discovered that the agency had neglected to perform a "needs assessment" on the project.

"One of the guys in a cubicle goofed," Woods said. "Their lawyer could have swept it under the rug, but to her credit, she didn't."

Faced with its error, the DCA reconsidered the proposal and switched its position. At a hearing in October, the state's experts argued that there was, in fact, no need for the development.

"Sometimes we do make mistakes and overlook things," said Pelham, the DCA secretary. "It wasn't a matter of switching sides, it was a matter of law, of telling the truth."

The judge, J.L. Johnston, agreed with Woods, Recio and the DCA. Among his findings: Approving the plan would mean that Marion County would have a 45-year supply of homes.

Woods and Recio were ecstatic when they got the e-mail in February saying the judge had ruled the project should be rejected.

"We thought we were done," Woods said. Then they learned the judge's decision had to be reviewed by the governor and Cabinet. Final thumbs up or thumbs down comes on Tuesday.

Keogh, who says development is inevitable on the family's parcel, is frustrated to see what she calls the family's "smart growth" project become a political football.

"We got caught in the web of some policymaking by the DCA," she said. "This isn't about how much money we can reap off the land. It's about what we're going to create there that will add, or give back and set a new standard. We're long-term players."

Recio, who runs her husband's horse training business, has another view: "This project is all about greed, not about need."

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Last week in Tallahassee, as the parties briefed Cabinet aides about the issue, Woods got a sense of the powerful forces arrayed against her. To present its case, the developer has hired Linda Shelley, who ran the DCA under Gov. Lawton Chiles and also served as his chief of staff.

In what amounted to a dress rehearsal for her argument before the Cabinet, Shelley lambasted the DCA's position as "legally incorrect, factually inconsistent, representing bad policy that is fundamentally an unfair way" to treat the county and the developer.

Rather than uphold or reverse the decision of the administrative judge, Shelley proposed a third option: Put the request on hold while Marion County revamps its overall comprehensive plan.

"The only difference is the applicant won't have to start over (the planning process) from scratch," Shelley said.

Left unsaid, but understood by those in the audience, was that by shelving the proposal, the developers could avoid a bigger obstacle than a couple of angry women. The Hometown Democracy initiative, expected to be on the ballot in November 2010, would give citizens a chance to vote on all major developments in their communities.

Pelham said the rush by developers to have their projects approved before Hometown Democracy reaches the ballot has led to an unprecedented flood of proposals through his agency.

"We're seeing large-scale plans that would allow for huge amounts of residential units - 100,000; 60,000; 30,000," he said. "Take away the needs requirement or weaken it and the department will have no mechanism by which to check excessive development proposed far beyond any need."

Woods has hired - "at a ridiculously low rate" - Ralf Brookes, a land use lawyer from Cape Coral, to represent her at Tuesday's meeting. She tried to speak during the aides' meeting last week but was overcome with emotion.

"The only other time in my life I've choked up like that was at my mother's funeral," Woods said. "But this project is just so wrong, in so many ways."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedycontributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at khundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

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