Betz Farm sure gets a lot of attention for something that never even existed.
That northeast section near Crystal River would look a lot different today had the Tamposi family, who owned the 350 acres, followed through with plans for a good-size development of 1,500 homes and condos.
Instead, even after securing one of those coveted Development of Regional Impact permits, they never did. The economy soured and, as we now know, expected growth from the Crystal River Mall never materialized.
The Tamposi family figured that out and gave the land to the county in 2003 in exchange for impact fee credits.
Where it’s sat empty since then.
Now the county wants to sell it, has an eager buyer, and a perfect use for the $6.5 million purchase price: Build an animal shelter.
The only thing it doesn’t have is clarity.
Here’s the two-part question: Are we selling this property to get it on the tax rolls? Or are we selling it to have money to build the animal shelter?
Those require separate answers.
Which leads to the interesting conversation during Tuesday’s county commission meeting.
Brief background: Tampa real estate developer Hamid Ashtari and the county agreed in May on the $6.5 million sale. Ashtari requested a 60-day due diligence, and then another 30-day extension, which the county agreed to — so long as he posted $100,000 in escrow that the county could draw down to offset delays.
Ashtari agreed to pay $25,000 a month if he sought another extension, which he did and was the subject of Tuesday’s vote.
Despite agreeing in July to pay a penalty if he sought another extension, Ashtari asked for another 90 days with no escrow.
Ashtari said he needs the extension to get a Swiftmud permit, which will make the project more appealing to potential investors.
Now, up to this point, pretty cut and dry, right? Nothing to look at here.
And this is where it gets a little muddy.
When the matter came up Tuesday, both Commissioners Holly Davis and Ruthie Davis Schlabach were ready to hand him the extra 90 days with no penalty, just as he sought.
Freshmen Commissioners Rebecca Bays and Diana Finegan were not.
Bays said Ashtari should post another $100,000 escrow and pay the $25,000-a-month penalty. When it was clear that wouldn’t go anywhere Finegan suggested a smaller number and that’s what they ended up with. If the extension goes the whole 90 days, he’s out another $30,000 to the county whether he closes on the property or not.
With Commissioner Jeff Kinnard absent, we had two commissioners who have already lived through the Betz Farm talk for over a year and two others who haven’t. The latter two had questions that the former two had already dealt with.
While I realize that can be aggravating to both Davis and Schlabach, it’s also kinda ridiculous to expect the two new commissioners to just go along. This is a very, very big deal. There’s a lot riding on how this Betz Farm thing turns out.
Not just the animal shelter. Where’s the growth management conversation? I mean…we’re taking 300 wooded acres and turning it into a thousand houses. On a two-lane street. Across from a high school. In a flood zone. Does that sound like proper growth planning?
Interesting that Public Works Director Mary Jensen provided commissioners with alternatives that included not selling the property at all, and instead swap it with the state. I asked a few people what that might look like and heard the county could add significant landfill space from the adjacent state forest and give Betz Farm in exchange.
So you see, there are many angles to Betz Farm besides just adding taxpayers and building a new animal shelter.
One last thing. I do not believe any commissioner is moving this along solely for the new shelter, because that would be political suicide. Citizens have made it clear growth is a significant concern and they wouldn’t be happy to learn they’re saddled with a new development because the county needed the money.
But the political reality is that the animal shelter project is in dire straits if this property isn’t sold.
It’s a tough call because everyone needs to come out of this happy. The county will collect taxes and have money for the shelter. Hamid Ashtari and his investors will build a beautiful community that adds to our shine and one citizens will embrace.
Or it takes a whole other direction.
Guess we’ll know in 90 days.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.