BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County commissioners on Tuesday endured nearly four hours of criticism from Spring Hill residents who argued that the board’s decision to sell planned park lands as home sites was at least underhanded or at worst corrupt.
Hartland Homes, which bought the lots, is the home-building company owned by state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill. The five commissioners are all Republican.
Months ago, the commission marked as surplus six county parcels totaling 40 acres. But the county never marketed the lots in a way that attracted the attention of Spring Hill residents who live near the lots. For years, they have used the small green spaces as play areas for their children, walking trails and scenic locations to walk their dogs.
Instead of seeing For Sale signs telling them the land was available, many who spoke to commissioners on Tuesday and before the county Planning and Zoning Commission last month, first learned the home-builder was buying the sites when they saw yellow rezoning signs pop up six weeks ago.
Some bought their homes years ago with the promise the green space nearby. Realtors told others that the sites were owned by the county as wildlife sanctuaries, residents said. Still others did their own research and knew the park sites were owned by the county and zoned for recreation, making them believe them the green areas would always be there to enjoy.
That the home-building company is owned by Ingoglia, the state representative for most of Hernando County and former head of the state and county Republican Party, further aggravated residents. County Commissioner Jeff Holcomb heads the local party and is a realtor who often features Hartland Homes on his business Facebook page. Commissioner John Allocco is past head of the local Republicans.
County commissioners on Tuesday rezoned each of six parcels. They cost Hartland just over $10,000 an acre, which some residents saw as a sweet deal.
Commissioners argued that the builder would be paying thousands more to prepare the sites. The land was on the county’s surplus list for more than a year, they said, and realtors shouldn’t make promises about the future. All zoning is evolutionary, they said, and there’s no guarantee it won’t change.
The print media sensationalized the story, commissioners said, and social media got the facts wrong. They said they couldn’t find a good way to tell residents about the lots for sale.
Ultimately, Commission Chairman John Mitten said he wants the county to develop a new policy for selling surplus land, one that gives adjacent property owners a first shot at buying parcels. He agreed to talk to County Administrator Jeff Rogers and bring a proposal back to his fellow commissioners.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes made similar comments when the controversy first hit. After the sales to Hartland, the county hired a broker, putting up signs and notified neighbors, which resulted in better financial offers. Dukes was the sole no vote on each of Tuesday’s Hartland Homes rezonings, saying they gave the perception the county was doing something wrong.
When the Deltona Corporation developed Spring Hill decades ago, it set aside lots for parks, schools and churches. Home buyers chose their lots in part based on proximity to such features. The developer deeded the park lots to the county, but few were developed into parks.
The County Commission decided several years ago to sell some of its surplus land. It could make money from the sales and collect property tax from the new owners who built houses or businesses.
Spring Hill residents told commissioners Tuesday that the deal felt “dirty” to them and that their promised green space was "being stolen.''
Robert Keiser said he chose his lot eight years ago for the nearby green space.
"The people voted you people in. Remember that,'' he said. "I’m not real happy with the way the land changed hands. Something wasn’t right, and I think you guys know that, too.''
Kathy Weidner lives near a lot sold to Ingoglia on Holiday Drive. The home builder wasn’t buying large undeveloped lots outside an established area because the infrastructure was already was in place in Spring Hill, saving him money, she said.
"This is corrupt,'' she said. "It’s just being done wrong.''
Commissioners also have seen a crush of correspondence on the issue.
“Apparently, the properties purchased had been for sale for two years,” wrote Spring Hill resident Megan Slavik. "I have lived in my home for five years, and never once did I see a for-sale sign.
“Yet on a social media post by Mr. lngoglia, he states, ‘anyone could have purchased the property.' l disagree. Had the property been properly listed for sale via signage, the public would have had a fairer chance to purchase.'’
More than 70 of her neighbors signed a petition opposing the rezoning of lots off Laredo Avenue. More than 80 others signed in protest of the sale and rezoning of lots off Oleta Street.
Richard Vidaud lives on Cranston Street, adjacent to land set for development on Sheffield Road. He looked for several years for a lot and was attracted by the nearby county-owned green space designated for recreational use.
"I am able to sit on my porch and enjoy the huge variety of birds that live in the woods and visit my yard to use the birdbath and feeder,'' he wrote, asking commissioners to reject the rezoning. "I hear the neighborhood children playing in and enjoying the woods for all sorts of activities.''
John and Mary Ellen Northup urged a no vote from commissioners on property Ingoglia has a contract to buy on Norvelle Road at Landover Boulevard.
"When we purchased our home many years ago, we were told that Hernando County was preserving this land for a possible recreation park and wildlife preserve,'' they wrote. "Blaise Ingoglia sat at my kitchen table a few years ago, asking my wife, kids and me to vote for him, promising to make Hernando County a better and safer place for our children’s and grandchildren’s future.
"We voted for him then, believing his words. Blaise Ingoglia and Hartland Homes now hold zero credibility with everyone in my whole neighborhood.
"He sold us out.''