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Dispute over right-of-way stalls construction project at busy Barclay intersection

BROOKSVILLE — Plans for improvements at the busy intersection of Cortez Boulevard and Barclay Avenue hit a roadblock late last month when the Hernando County Commission decided to abandon efforts to acquire a key piece of right-of-way.

The decision brought to an end a legal squabble in which the attorney of the landowner claimed Hernando County didn't follow the rules for taking private property for public use.

Assistant county attorney Randy Griffiths reminded commissioners that he had been charged with acquiring property along Barclay because of plans for future widening of the road. It didn't take long to agree on a price for the strip of land needed from the Sunoco gas station at the southeast corner of the intersection. It was secured for $360,000, "which was reasonable,'' Griffiths said.

But negotiations with the Register family over a similar sliver of their land used for recreational vehicle sales on the west side of Barclay did not go smoothly, Griffiths said.

Last October, the county filed a court action for eminent domain to take the property of Register Family LLC for public use. Negotiations continued, but Griffiths said that the bottom line for the Register family was a minimum price of $1.7 million. He said he was "disheartened'' by that.

County Attorney Garth Coller told commissioners that the county had "tried anything humanly possible,'' including land swaps, but was not able to make the deal work. He said he believed the road work would actually be beneficial to both the public and the Register family, which owns Register Chevrolet.

"We're at a dead end,'' Coller said.

Griffiths recommended that the board voluntarily dismiss the eminent domain action and noted that the county would still have to pay the attorney's fees for the Register family, but it would at least stop the clock on more fees.

Brian Malmberg, the assistant county administrator for operations, said he couldn't see spending $1.7 million on right of way when the entire cost for the construction project at the intersection was going to be $2 million.

"The four-laning of Barclay Avenue at the intersection of State Road 50 will be placed on hold at this time,'' Malmberg told the Times. "The funding was from District 4 impact fees and will be reallocated to other projects within that district."

As for the possibility of coming back to the project at a later date, "we will need to re-evaluate the funding situation and determine our time line moving forward," Malmberg said.

"This is a travesty,'' said commission Chairman Nick Nicholson of the failed negotiations. "I consider this a total travesty.''

The Register family has a different view of how things played out.

"Contrary to the picture that was painted at the public hearing, I want you to know that the Register family is not the problem. The problem is Hernando County,'' the Registers' attorney, Lorena Hart Ludovici, wrote to the Times after a request for comment.

"Private property rights are the cornerstone of our individual freedoms and deserve the utmost protection. As such, our Legislature crafted strict laws dictating how a governmental entity can take private property rights through its power of eminent domain,'' Ludovici wrote. "Not only did Hernando County fail to follow the law numerous times, they aggressively attempted to deprive Register Chevrolet Inc. of its constitutional and statutory rights by refusing to allow it to participate in the eminent domain action.''

She stated that Register Chevrolet forced a court hearing in order to have a judge rule that Register was an interested party and had a business damage claim.

"To date, the county has never offered to settle with Register Chevrolet, much less acknowledge its presence in the case,'' Ludovici said.

"One of the commissioners said the situation is a travesty. I agree. Hernando County's actions in this case were deplorable."

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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