BROOKSVILLE — A reluctant Hernando County Commission declined a purchase offer for a piece of surplus riverfront property in River Heights Estates on Tuesday after neighbors said they are willing to purchase the site and two others.
The three parcels offer non-waterfront residents access to the Withlacoochee River, which they say was promised to them in their deeds when the developer planned the Ridge Manor subdivision in the 1950s.
The county utilities department owns all three lots, which it received in a trade with the county in 2017. County Commissioners have been pushing in recent years to sell county-owned parcels they deem unnecessary. The goal is to raise funds and get land onto the tax rolls to generage property tax revenue.
The value for the lot with the purchase offer was listed by the county property appraiser at $39,502, and the bidder, James Tremmel, offered $25,000. He owns an adjacent parcel and had hoped to expand his home site.
But Bruce Snow, the attorney representing the Ridge Manor Property Owners Association, asked the commission to remove all three lots from its list of county-owned parcels for sale. He noted in a Jan. 10 letter that residents of the community ″hold a valuable property interest'' in the lots.
In May of 2018, the County Commission rejected earlier bids on the lots to allow the county to do more research. At that meeting, residents presented a petition protesting the sale, as well as paperwork indicating that the original developer had promised river access to all non-riverfront property owners that was "permanent and forever,'' one resident told commissioners.
Several long-term residents told commissioners then and on Tuesday that their families had been launching canoes and kayaks there and enjoying the lots for years. An opinion disputing the claim from the county attorney’s office allowed county staff to bring the purchase offer back again.
"It’s just unfair to our community'' to take away the promised access, said resident Ed Kirby.
His wife, Sandra Kirby, said it was a burden to residents to have to fight for their right to the access. She suggested that the county’s land swap with the utility department occurred only so the parcels could be declared surplus and sold.
"The fact remains that it was the intention of the developer to have access for the property owners,'' she said.
Lynn Gruber-White, president of the Ridge Manor Property Owners Association, reminded commissioners of a zoning decision they made last year after county attorney Garth Coller said there was an "equitable argument'' that people who relied on sales flyers when they bought their property had an expectation of getting what they were promised.
Residents of River Heights Estates have the sales flyers, plus the notice in their deeds that access to the three lots was promised, she told commissioners.
Residents of the community agreed to ask the county to form a municipal services benefit unit, Snow said, similar to those formed in communities that seek the county’s help in paving their lime rock roads. Residents who would benefit from the access, which were about 120 properties in the community, each would pay enough to purchase and maintain the lots.
Commissioners bogged down in some of the details, including how to decide the value of the property, whether Tremmel should get an easement across one property to continue access to his home and whether to require a vote of the affected property owners before moving forward with the plan.
Commissioners agreed to move forward with a planning a vote and asked their staff to bring more details to a future commission meeting.