A contentious two-year battle with a landowner, the city of Inverness and the county was ended abruptly Tuesday by a sharply divided county commission.
Commissioners voted 3-2 to accept Greg Williams’ settlement offer to drop his lawsuit against the county in exchange for the county ending its opposition of the city’s voluntary annexation of 382 acres of Lakeside Ranches that Williams owns.
Commissioners Scott Carnahan, Jimmie T. Smith and Chairman Jeff Kinnard voted to accept the settlement. Commissioners Brian Coleman and Ron Kitchen Jr., citing the lack of public notice that a vote would take place — the item was added to the agenda late Monday afternoon — voted no.
The issue produced some of the fiercest debate yet between the board's current members.
Carnahan, in particular, accused County Attorney Denise Dymond Lyn of not providing commissioners with prior settlement offers from Williams, whose weddings and receptions on the property adjacent to the Lakeside Country Club between Inverness and Hernando led to numerous lawsuits between Williams and the county.
Lyn said the only true offers from Williams were to settle the code-compliance case that preceded court action. She said the county commission doesn’t have a say in code hearings.
Kinnard said he placed the settlement offer on the agenda at the last minute after learning Monday afternoon that Smith would be attending the meeting. Smith had told Kinnard he planned to miss the meeting to attend a conference in Texas.
Kitchen was incensed at the late addition, saying it didn’t give the public enough notice to chime in.
“We’re moving into very dangerous territory,” he said.
Kinnard said he wanted a full board present to vote. Kitchen, however, said he wondered whether Kinnard purposely wanted Smith in attendance because he knew Smith supported Williams in both the annexation and legal cases.
“I see this as a push and a power play,” Kitchen said.
Kinnard said he only wanted the issue resolved.
“I brought this forward to put this thing to bed,” Kinnard said.
The county brought code action against Williams in 2017, saying his wedding and reception business violated county ordinances. Williams said the business is protected from local regulation under the state’s agritourism law.
A county code hearing officer ruled that weddings were allowed, but not receptions without permits. Williams then sued the county.
Williams later asked the city of Inverness to annex the Lakeside Ranches property, which the county opposed. Commissioners Coleman, Kitchen and Kinnard said they would abide by whatever ruling a judge made on the annexation.
Tuesday’s agenda included a request from Lyn for an attorney-client “shade” meeting to discuss Williams’ offer.
Carnahan said he got a call Aug. 6 from Inverness Council President Ken Hinkle, who “heard through the grapevine” that Williams had made an offer to end the lawsuit if the county would end its objection to the annexation.
Carnahan said that a citizen, who he would not name but who he said was not affiliated with Williams or the city, told him that Williams had made other offers to settle but he only knew of the latest one.
He said ending the legal case would help build relations with the city.
And, he said, this isn’t the first time the county commission supported a business over the county staff. In February, an equally divided board voted along the same lines to allow the owner of Crump’s Landing to clear trees without permits, saying it was done for agricultural purposes.
“We’ve already done this before,” Carnahan said. “This is nothing new.”
Williams had public support from Publix Supermarkets. Inverness store manager Janet Kohlas said Publix caters many events at Lakeside Ranches, and other local businesses benefit from Lakeside Ranches as well.
Kitchen said that was not a reason to give Williams a break.
“All businesses need to be treated the same,” he said. “There are businesses that follow the rules and businesses that don’t follow the rules.”
Of Williams’s proposal, Kitchen added: “The offer is, ‘Don’t enforce your ordinance, don’t enforce your law, and I won’t sue you.'”
Kitchen also said the rush to settle occurred because of “side deals” and a “few powerful people got to some of us.”
Both Carnahan and Kinnard denied that assertion.
“This needs to go away,” Kinnard said. “It has nothing to do with anyone powerful.”
Carnahan, noting that he voted to support the Williams annexation, added: “Nobody got to me either.”
Later, as the meeting wound down, Kitchen backed away from his comments. He said he wasn’t accusing commissioners of any wrongdoing, but that he hears such comments from the public.
Inverness Councilman Cabot McBride attended the meeting and was pleased with the vote.
“I’m very grateful this is done with,” he said. “We keep taking shots against each other because of this issue.”
Williams was also satisfied.
“The cases are now settled,” he told a reporter. “As far as we’re concerned, the litigation is over. We can get on with our lives. We’re very happy.”