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For Sale: Hundreds of acres of Hernando land bought to protect ground water

Water management officials want to sell nearly half of the 2,300 acres they assembled a decade ago.

BROOKSVILLE — For months, Hernando County officials have been taking heat for selling surplus county-owned parcels, including 40 acres sold to the home-building company of state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill.

But the county isn’t the only local government agency hoping to unload public acreage.

Earlier this month, the Southwest Florida Water Management District published several notices of “intent to sell” in the Tampa Bay Times. The notices listed hundreds of acres of what has been known as the Annutteliga Hammock located largely in the Royal Highlands area in northwest Hernando County.

Water management officials bought more than 2,300 acres in that area between 1998 and 2010.

"The intent of the Annutteliga Hammock project is to provide for water quality protection of the Chassahowitzka Springs and serve as a natural linkage between the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area and Withlacoochee State Forest,'' said Susanna Martinez Tarokh, spokeswoman for the agency. "The District acquired a total of 1,366 parcels, totaling 2,317 acres.''

But changing conditions prompted the district to change direction.

Property values skyrocketed in the early 2000s, and Royal Highlands was growing, with more than 800 homes by 2011 and more than 1,000 now, "reducing the potential for a meaningful connectivity between public lands,'' Martinez Tarokh said.

News stories several years ago described the District’s land ownership map of the area as looking like confetti dropped on the floor. The properties, many of them small, single-family home lots, were not connected.

"The question became, could you really do a large enough acquisition area to realistically protect what you were acquiring the property for,'' said Fritz Musselmann, retired land resources director for the Water Management District.

The mix of publicly and privately owned parcels would make it difficult to manage, he said, including for doing prescribed burns.

Instead, officials changed the plan. They would assemble or keep properties that connected with already conserved areas, he said.

This approach resulted "in a focused area for acquisition, referred to as the “Consolidation Region,” that would still provide water quality protection and provide a natural linkage between Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area and Withlacoochee State Forest,'' said Martinez Tarokh.

This area included 345 parcels, which the district will keep, totaling 1,273 acres.

The other 1,021 parcels in the region, which total 1,044 acres, were declared surplus by the governing board of the district. Thirty of those have sold.

The eight legal advertisements appearing in the Times this month listed parcels ranging from 10 acres to 163.8 acres. The largest parcel was an undeveloped square of Royal Highlands east of Commercial Way, north of Seattle Wren Avenue and east of Miland Road. The parcel was bought by the district in 2002 for $555,000, and the appraised value now is $667,000, according to county records.

That site would have generated nearly $11,000 this year in property taxes for local government if it were privately owned, appraiser records show. Returning property to the tax rolls is one of the reasons cited by county officials for selling land they are not using.

The District’s decisions to buy and manage land match its agency goals, said Martinez Tarokh.

"The district purchases land to support its mission of water resource protection, such as water quality protection in springsheds. Additionally, the acquisition of lands contiguous to or connecting publicly owned lands is a priority for many reasons, including land management efficiency,'' she said.

The purchases also can provide wildlife corridors.

The surplus land sale is being done in a way that protects the water quality of Chassahowitzka Springs, Martinez Tarok said.

“The sale of the lots (typically 1 acre or less) are being done in a septic-tank-neutral manner,” she said. “This is being achieved by adding a deed restriction that states ‘no septic tank or other device for sanitary disposal of waste shall be installed on the property.’”