Supporters want taxing unit to fund Braden Preserve. Opponents want to hear from Pam Bondi

Article Courtesy of  The Bradenton Herald

By Hannah Morse

Published March 1, 2018

Manatee — The attorney for the River Club Homeowners Association said he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to quash the creation of a municipal services taxing unit, or MSTU, that would lead to the establishment of a preserve. This includes getting an opinion from Florida’s lawyer: Attorney General Pam Bondi.

In a letter sent to Assistant County Attorney Bill Clague, the HOA’s attorney Eric N. Appleton of Tampa-based law firm Bush Ross asked that the county seek Bondi’s legal advice.

“As Manatee County is apparently poised to attempt to use the MSTU process in an unprecedented manner, it seems prudent for the BOCC and your office to seek this legal guidance from our State’s Attorney General,” the Feb. 26 letter read.

Appleton cited Florida Statute 16.01(3) that says the attorney general can, “on the written requisition of the ... officer of a county, municipality, other unit of local government, or political subdivision, give an official opinion and legal advice in writing on any question of law relating to the official duties of the requesting officer.”

Clague wasn’t immediately available for comment, but stated in an email to Appleton that he would address the HOA’s concerns on the record in front of commissioners.

According to the attorney general’s website, Bondi has most recently issued an opinion on whether Monroe County could establish a MSTU to fund landscaping, signage and canal maintenance and restoration. She wrote that it is up to the county to decide if these services are deemed “essential” to the people in that taxing unit.

Friends of Keep Woods and the River Club Homeowners Association are at odds over a municipal services taxing unit that would save a wooded area behind Braden Woods from being developed.

The Manatee County MSTU in question is being proposed to 1,440 residents in the Braden Woods/River Club subdivisions to increase their property tax by a millage rate of 0.53 over 30 years. The funds would be used to purchase a 33-acre parcel of land to turn it into a preserve. An agreement needs to be in place by March 31, a deadline set by developer Pat Neal, who intends to cluster 32 homes on the site and call it the gated community of Myara.

Appleton told the Bradenton Herald on Monday that he hasn’t found a case where an MSTU was used in this manner.

Wanting to prevent development on a pristine patch of woods, a group called Friends of Keep Woods banded together to come up with a way to buy the land, priced at $3 million. The Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast is facilitating the transaction, also raising funds for its purchase, and has gained a nearby 11 acres that would be added to the preserve if the purchasing mechanism passes.

“In reality, this was done as a community project,” Keep Woods president Gary Hebert told the Bradenton Herald on Monday. “We weren’t dividing Braden Woods and River Club.”

County officials and Keep Woods members held several community meetings to spread information on what the MSTU would entail and when the county would send out postcard polls in two rounds. If more than half of residents showed support, it would indicate whether county staff would bring the MSTU proposal to the board of county commissioners, who have the final say.

When MSTU supporters saw that they might be short of votes, they found out who did and didn’t vote based on a public records request of addresses and went door to door asking for responses. Keep Woods members said that the postcards never reached some residents, or were sent to vacant lots. They notarized their substitute polls, which would have pushed support over 50 percent, and asked that commissioners consider their plea during a January commission meeting.

Assistant County Attorney Bill Clague said during that meeting that the commissioners don’t need the approval of residents to establish a MSTU, but “many (governments) do it because MSTUs can be the subject of intense debate.”

“You could get 100 percent support and not establish an MSTU,” Clague had added.

In a Feb. 19 letter to Clague, Appleton outlines four main reasons why the homeowners association takes issue with the MSTU. He said that the association was never explained how the MSTU idea was formulated and how the boundaries were created, saying they are “quite arbitrary” and “make little sense.” Appleton also contends that River Club homes make up 62 percent of the 1,440 parcels and would “be exposed to 70 percent of the tax burden created by the MSTU.”

The Myara project’s rezone could have also increased the value of the land, which Appleton believes will result in the 1,440 homeowners paying more than the $3 million. In her Jan. 19 letter to commissioners, attorney Patricia Petruff, who was hired to represent the association in December, believes that properties of this worth should be appraised twice, not once.

“Why would the County set its citizens up to pay more and enrich the current land owner at their expense?” Appleton asked in his letter.

For these reasons, the association, “in the interest of avoiding such a legal dispute,” wants the county to “cease all efforts to consider the MSTU.”

Hebert said he thinks the call to get the attorney general involved because the state law is “very clear about counties being able to establish MSTUs.”

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said.

He said he understands that nobody likes being taxed (“It’s a fact of life,” he said.) and Keep Woods is not against development, but they want to promote more green space in the county.

“We’re destroying the very thing that makes this area attractive to people,” he said.

The board of county commissioners will decide on the matter at their next regular meeting on March 6.