Months of preparation and worry, four hours on the operating table, an odd feeling that the bottom left quarter of my face has quietly left the room, and the adventure of opening my jaw wide enough for a spoonful of pudding — all that won’t stop me from bringing today’s topic.
Yup. Of all the subjects I could have chosen out of the surgery recovery gate — Library Guy politics, confusion in Inverness Village 4, or gas tax — I decided to stick with a well-worn subject.
The issue is the same. The county is ignoring its responsibility to the community by blindly selling the Betz Farm property to the highest bidder with no consideration of whether the buyer is a good fit in Citrus or not. Commissioners have three offers on Tuesday’s board agenda and one seems to fit in their wheelhouse.
Naturally, that’s the one with potential issues. Let’s get into it.
I’ve written enough about Betz Farm that you know the drill. A developer had plans for a 1,500-home community. When the northwest Citrus housing market didn’t take off, the developer swapped the land to the county for impact fee credits.
The county, looking for ways to raise money to build an animal shelter, decided to sell its surplus property including Betz Farm.
They had a buyer, but it never went to close. More about that in a minute.
A few weeks ago, during the animal shelter site dedication, County Administrator Steve Howard said the county was no longer tying the Betz Farm sale with the shelter project.
While it’s good to see wiser minds separate the two, we’re still left with Betz Farm. And I believe county commissioners should sell it to a quality developer who has a history of building trust in communities.
Well, again, we’re on shaky ground.
The first time commissioners were ready to pull the string, they had two main offers. One from a big-name developer with a track record for causing headaches for local governments, and the other from an engineer who already had plans for a separate piece of property in Citrus County.
Commissioners chose the engineer, in large part because of his somewhat vague development promises on 150 acres of Cardinal Street near the Suncoast Parkway. The county was so enamored by these development dreams, it included the Cardinal Farms Group LLC property in its parkway interchange management area.
I bring that up because the high bidder on Tuesday’s agenda for Betz Farm puts us in a similar predicament.
Bravo Land Group LLC of Lake Mary is offering $6 million. Nick Tamposi who, ironically, was the actual developer of Betz Farm back in the day, comes in second at $5.7 million. Another Lake Mary company is third at $5.5 million.
Most people wouldn't recognize Bravo Land Group. But its manager, James Dicks, also is the same developer of the mammoth 950-home Crystal Ridge community being built near the former Rock Crusher Canyon. Also, Amber Ridge at Black Diamond with over 1,000 housing units, including 600 houses.
He’s associated with dozens of current or former real estate and development businesses in Florida.
Dicks is also the developer of another little land-use case you may have heard about: Pine Ridge Golf Club. That one isn't decided yet; it was scheduled for public hearing Tuesday but postponed due to board Chairman Ruthie Davis Schlabach’s expected absence for breast cancer surgery.
So, here’s my question: Is it a conflict of interest for the County Commission to contract with this developer on a land purchase while a contentious land-use case with the same developer is pending?
Frankly, I don’t see how it isn’t.
At least we should have a conversation about it. The public deserves to hear from commissioners that if they’re choosing Dicks to buy Betz Farm, it isn’t an indicator that he’ll have their vote for Pine Ridge or anything else that comes along.
Unfortunately, the commission’s in a pretty tough spot with the public right now on land-use cases. Should the board sell Betz Farm to Dicks and then approve the Pine Ridge master plan change for houses on the golf course over extreme opposition, well, it’s easy to see the uproar that creates.
I’m a big believer in exploring unintended consequences before diving into something new. That’s what the county is facing with the Betz Farm sale. A ton of potential unintended consequences, including that the county sells to someone who wants to make a quick buck off our backsides.
It looks so easy, commissioners, but it’s not. Be sharp.
Join the discussion on our Facebook page.
Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.