Raise your hand if you’ve got the Betz Farm property deal figured out.
I thought so.
It’s approximately the same number of hands I see raised when asking a similar question about the animal shelter project.
Both valuable endeavors — one, selling a chunk of prime public land; the other, a much-needed animal shelter. In most worlds, those two are not even on the same continent. In Citrus County, they’re intertwined.
Betz Farm. Animal shelter. One doesn’t go without the other.
And that, my friends, is a problem.
You know me well enough to not be surprised I’m writing once again about county policy. I realize that’s like starting the day with social studies homework.
Policy is the playbook of how certain things get done. It’s put together by staffers and approved by commissioners, with a lot of opportunity for public input.
Smart policy doesn’t just make the trains run on time. It stops them from jumping the track.
That’s why we should talk some about the Betz Farm-Animal shelter arranged marriage — and ask ourselves if this really makes sense, or are we just lucky so far?
We all know the story. The county is selling 350 acres known as Betz Farm — a Tamposi development just outside Crystal River that was never built. The county took ownership some years ago though no money exchanged hands; Tamposi received impact fee credits and the county took the deed.
Well, the county is selling its surplus land and using proceeds for the new animal shelter. Betz Farm is the biggest piece by far and, if sold at the $6.5 million now on the table, that should get the animal shelter off the ground.
I hear ya: That’s awesome, Mike! Why are you making trouble again?
Here’s why: What if the contract doesn’t close? What if the deal isn’t a good one for taxpayers? What if the county, in such a rush to close in order to secure the animal shelter funding, sells to anyone regardless of whether this person or company has a history of quality developments or not?
Those aren’t sky-is-falling scenarios. Each is realistic.
I’m not trying to pour sour milk on your Cheerios. And I hope everyone ends up happy when all this is done.
However: It’s a little scary the county has no back-up plan to pay for the shelter should the Betz Farm sale hit a snag. Commissioner Diana Finegan has already said she wants the shelter built without bonding it and she’s asking where the rest of the money is coming from. Legitimate questions that deserve a public discussion.
And we’ve all heard about the $22 million shelter debacle. County folks are promising that number will return to reality.
As for the Betz Farm property, the contract buyer is Hamid Ashtari, a Tampa engineer and, from what I’ve been told repeatedly by numerous people, a darn good one.
Ashtari has interests in other potential developments in Citrus. He owns 147 acres of vacant land off Cardinal Street; the county included it in the Suncoast Parkway interchange management area.
That said, he needs certain permits at the Betz Farm site that are both time-consuming and expensive, and he’d like some of them in his hand before forking over $6.5 million.
There’s been delays in the contract schedule to close, and Ashtari has paid thousands of dollars to the county for those delays. He is on Tuesday’s agenda asking for three months to receive a conceptual permit from Swiftmud proving the land can be developed.
Commissioners are likely to grant his request. Consider the alternative: No permit, no closing. No closing, no $6.5 million for the animal shelter. And, with no backup plan for the shelter…who knows?
The thing is, both of these projects have massive public upside. A gorgeous new neighborhood across from Crystal River High School. An animal shelter embraced by the community.
And county commissioners lauded for their leadership in getting these done in a way that makes sense.
Instead of counting on luck.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.