The Inverness City Council voted unanimously this week to accept an application for a voluntary annexation of nearly 400 acres and braced for the legal battle that is likely to follow.
Likely because Citrus County Assistant Attorney Beth Antrim on Tuesday night objected to the annexation, arguing during the council’s public hearing that the move did not meet Florida’s voluntary annexation standards.
It is the second time this year that county commission lawyers objected to a voluntary annexation by Inverness. In February, County Attorney Denise Dymond Lyn objected to a 206-acre voluntary annexation slated to become an upscale RV campground. County commission and Inverness lawyers will try dispute resolution meetings over the objection and head to court if that’s unsuccessful.
With that in mind, both city staff and annexation applicant Greg Williams came to the council meeting prepared with outside analysts to back up their claims the annexation meets state standards.
City Manager Frank DiGiovanni hired Tallahassee lawyer Mark Lawson, who specializes in local government law, to research whether the voluntary annexation of 382 acres of Williams’ property meets state statute muster.
Lawson then hired Pennsylvania based GAI Consultants to review the annexation request.
Williams hired Ocala-based surveyors Pigeon-Roberts & Associates, LLC, to review his property, annexation request, and whether the property conforms to state requirements. Williams is also a lawyer.
Both sets of consultants concluded all the voluntary annexation criteria were met.
After the vote, Williams told the Chronicle he no longer wanted to fight with the county. The county is also trying to force Williams to make fire code upgrades to one of his barns that he uses for wedding receptions.
Williams argued in recent lawsuits against the county that his farm is designated an agritourism business and that the county’s codes don’t apply.
“I have four lawsuits (against the county). I’ll drop three as a show of good faith,” Williams told the Chronicle after the city council’s vote.
He said he wanted “to peaceably depart to where there are greener pastures evident to use,” referencing his annexation request into Inverness.
“I think it’s time for a truce ... so we can all move forward in a positive way,” he said.
Williams’ farm is south of Lakeside Golf Resort Inverness and east of U.S. 41. The property Williams wants inside city limits is north of Inverness.
Florida voluntary annexation statutes require that the property to be annexed is contiguous with the municipality. It defines contiguous as meaning that a “substantial part of a boundary of the territory sought to be annexed by a municipality is coterminous with a part of the boundary of the municipality.”
Nearly 600 feet of the proposed annexed land abuts the city; hundreds of acres do not, though. But about 90 percent of the Williams parcel that abuts the city boundary is also contiguous with it.
The statute also requires that the annexed property be “reasonably compact,” meaning that the area be a “concentration of a piece of property in a single area.”
The statutes also stipulate that the annexation not create any enclaves. The statutes define an enclave as a piece of unincorporated, improved land bounded on all sides by a single municipality or bounded by the municipality and a natural or man-made obstacle where the only passage is through the municipality.
And while the consultants in attendance said the annexation met all those criteria, Antrim disagreed.
She said that the southern portion of the property abutting the city was not a substantial portion. She also said the property was not compact, but rather sprawling and connects to the city through only a small corridor.
She also said the annexation would create an enclave.
“The parcel would be virtually surrounded by unincorporated county property,” Antrim said.
She also pointed out that the only access by a vehicle from the city and into the Williams’ property would involve the driver having to leave the city and drive onto county roads and back onto the annexed property. She said there was no direct route from the city onto the Williams property without leaving city property.
Williams countered, saying Florida annexation statutes don’t address the issue of how roads lead to or exit annexed property.
After the council vote, Antrim told the Chronicle it will be up to Lyn to recommend whether the county commission should try to block the annexation. Lyn told the Chronicle last week she had problems with the annexation.
If the county formally objects, the city and county government would be required to first meet to settle the dispute. If they can not reach an agreement, the county could petition the courts to intervene.
Councilman David Ryan said the addition of an agritourism ranch with horses, cattle and a tourist attraction is good for the city. Williams uses the ranch to also hold weddings and wedding receptions as well as workshops and business meetings.
Ryan also said the annexation meets the criteria set down by state statutes.
As for the county’s objections, Ryan said it was “incomprehensible that they are putting up the barriers that they are.”
Inverness Mayor Bob Plaisted agreed, adding that there was no harm to the county if the property was annexed. The county would still collect its share of taxes from Williams, he said.
Councilwoman Jacquie Hepfer said the county’s objections will serve no purpose but to make the annexation an expensive one.
“I find it sad. It’s a ... beautiful business. I don’t see why there should be a problem,” she said. “The losers in all this are the residents of the city and county who have to pay the legal bills.”
“This is something we need to do," Councilman Cabot McBride said. "We need to show the community at large, we need to show other entrepreneurs, that if you are interested in establishing a business, knock on the door of city hall and we are going to work with you to make it a success.”