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Jackson: Pasco CEO job just got a lot tougher

Even as the list of candidates seeking to succeed Florida’s longest-serving county administrator was being unwrapped last week, you couldn’t help wondering how many wanted to quietly withdraw, given the news out of federal court in Tampa. We know this: No matter who lands in the big chair, transportation will remain a critical concern for Pasco County. But — at least until recently — the county had this ingenious ordinance designed to reduce, substantially, the cost of land acquisition. Alert applicants would have known about it. Then attorneys for Hillcrest Preserve, a never-built mixed-use community north of State Road 52 west of Interstate 75, fed the ordinance to the human document shredder known as U.S. District Court Judge Steven Merryday, and when he was finished, Pasco’s well-laid plan was reduced to confetti. The gist of the scheme was this: Owners of property along thoroughfares slated for expansion were divided into two groups. Those not interested in development would, at the proper moment, be paid “just compensation” for land that became part of the new right-of-way. But those with development ambitions were required to surrender, without payment, land within the proposed right-of-way as a prerequisite for having their plans approved.
To say Merryday was not amused is to put things tamely. Summarizing a 52-page opinion that fairly blazes with exquisite — if restrained, given the implications — fury, the judge writes, “Pasco County has enacted an ordinance that effects what, in more plain-spoken times, an informed observer would call a ‘land grab.’ Had he wanted to be exceptionally blunt, the judge could have said Pasco was running a shakedown operation: Nice little development plan you got here. Shame if anything happened to it. Instead, he described the use of “police powers” to “extortionate” property with the express purpose of “build(ing) a low-cost (or no cost), comfortable, and bulging land bank but (also) to accumulate land that may never be used.” Moreover, he notes, the ordinance places no requirements on the county ever to do anything with the “confiscated property,” opening myriad options up to and including one day selling it, “in which case,” Merryday writes sardonically, “Pasco County undoubtedly would demand from the buyer at least ‘just compensation.’ Sympathizing with Pasco’s efforts to achieve thrift in pursuit of legitimate obligations — among the things the county does exceptionally well, as we witnessed throughout the Tommytown redevelopment project — the judge noted nonetheless that constitutional guarantees are not mere inconveniences to be worked around. The ordinance, he writes, “is an unmistakable, abusive, and coercive” trampling of those guarantees, “perpetrated to cynically evade the Constitution.” Wham! Now, even as we eagerly anticipate the insights regarding the county administrator applicants from headhunter Renee Narloch, we anticipate the dropping of other shoes. As Merryday notes, Pasco’s “startlingly effective” right-of-way acquisitions during the ordinance’s effective period amount to millions of dollars below the just compensation required by the Constitution. Assuming landowners victimized by Pasco’s unconstitutional shakedown begin lining up to be paid what they’re owed, this becomes a reasonable question for the finalists: Would you recommend appealing the district court’s decision? Also: Which do you think is the more likely outcome? Pasco will prevail and won’t owe any landowners anything. Or, an appeal will simply crank up the billable-hours clock for an outside legal team and the county will wind up paying off attorneys as well as landowners. If the latter is more probable, how shall Pasco go about its bold dreams of broad roadways and flowing traffic, all the while bound to Judge Merryday’s interpretation of the Takings Clause? The candidate with the best answers may well win a job that, all of a sudden, got a whole lot tougher.

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