Inverness city officials' hopes that they could circumvent a state-mandated mediation process to resolve an annexation dispute with the county stalled Wednesday after a judge ruled during a related hearing that mediation was the legal remedy and the city needed to stick with it.

In a move by city lawyers to quickly resolve a dispute with the county objecting to the city council’s vote to annex two properties, the city filed earlier this month a memorandum of law request for an Inverness bond validation.  

In essence, it meant the city went to a judge and pointed to the new annexed properties and asked whether the city could include the two properties if it ever needed to arrange a bond issuance to raise money. A positive ruling by 5th Circuit Court Judge Daniel Merritt essentially would have meant the two properties were properly annexed. County Attorney Denise Dymond Lyn objected.

Meanwhile, the county and city council have already started the mediation process, she said, albeit hitting several obstacles. Their latest meeting was July 25, and they have 14 days after that date to decide on a mediator to move the process along.

Merritt concluded after the 1 1/2 hour hearing that the county commission had the right to object to the annexations and to have a process by which it could argue its case.

“It seems to me the issue of whether the annexations were properly done and the issue of bond validation are inextricably intertwined,” Merritt said at the hearing. “And I think at this stage I’m going to stay the (bond) proceedings ... until the mediation process is complete which will allow the county, as is their right, to contest whether the annexations were proper.”

Along with asking that Merritt put a hold on the bond hearing, Lyn also asked that he dismiss it altogether, but Merritt did not rule on that Wednesday.

Inverness City Manager Frank DiGiovanni said he was glad the bond validation got the annexation information before a judge. As for what the city will do now, DiGiovanni would only say “we will come up with methods to quickly move this along. We’re weighing the legalities of the process.”

Following Merritt’s ruling, County Commissioner Jeff Kinnard told the Chronicle that initiating a bond validation hearing only muddied the waters of what was otherwise a simple process.

Asked by the Chronicle if the county would offer the city binding arbitration to avoid a possible lengthy court process, Kinnard said he initially proposed that but the current mediation process didn’t include that, but allowed for the appeals process.

Lyn said it is unknown whether a mediator would make a recommendation ruling or whether they would simply try to get each side to reach a compromise. She said each mediator is different.

The issue centers on the city council’s vote earlier this year to approve two voluntary annexation requests by area landowners to become part of Inverness.

One property owner is Greg Williams, who asked the city to annex nearly 400 acres of his Lakeside Ranches.

His farm is south of Van der Valk Golf Resort and east of U.S. 41. The property Williams wants inside city limits is north of Inverness and about 600 feet is contiguous with the city.

The other owner is John Eden, who asked the council that his 206 acres bordered by Lake Spivey on the east be annexed for development of an upscale RV property there.

The county objected to both annexations, claiming that each violates Florida statutes outlining requirements that voluntary annexations must meet. The city council disagrees and unanimously voted each into the city.

City Council president Ken Hinkle said he was disappointed with Merritt’s ruling, but the city will follow the mediation process.

“Just let the process work its way out,” he said. “The thing is it’s costing both sides money.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@chronicleonline.com or 352-397-5914.

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