After years of contentious debate over the powers of Lake County municipalities to incorporate rural county land, the City of Eustis’s controversial plan to annex 164 acres in the Thrill Hill and Lake Eldorado area has been struck down by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
As a result, the Eustis City Commission has voted to end the move for annexation.
Lake County has argued that the Thrill Hill annexation constitutes urban sprawl and the Board of County Commissioners earlier had voted to deed a 25-feet-wide strip of land in the Lake May Preserve to a non-profit in order to block the annexations. But the state would not allow the land transfer because it violated deed restrictions on the property, which had been purchased with a state grant.
Now the state has blocked the Thrill Hill annexation.
Following the ruling Eustis City Commissioner Willie Hawkins, who supported the annexation and has been an outspoken critic of the county, did not back down in blasting the Lake County’s Board of County Commissioners’ efforts to block the move, saying that the county “does not want Eustis to grow the way we want to grow.”
For now, Hawkins conceded defeat.
“It’s dead, at least for the time being,” Hawkins said. “Based on the ruling that came down from the state we pretty much had no choice but to vote no on the annexation. I couldn’t in good conscience vote that way, knowing what the county had done and how I felt.”
Hawkins was the sole vote on the commission against ending the annexation, and he said the state had “rewarded the county for its misdeeds.”
But he said this may only be the first round of the annexation fight even after FEPs decision.
“I’m sure it’s going to come up again at some point,” Hawkins said. “There may be other opportunities for annexation. But it’s pretty much dead right now.”
Still, it was unclear whether the Thrill Hill fight would set a precedent for further annexations and whether the county and municipalities could reach consensus on annexations, especially in Rural Protection Areas. Lake County Board Chair Sean Parks held a joint meeting with all 14 of the county’s municipalities on February 7 to discuss growth in the county, but no formal action was taken.
Lake County Commissioner Leslie Campione, who has been highly active in efforts to protect RPAs, believes the talks were productive.
Campione said in a statement that, “we are looking forward to working closely with the municipalities in Lake County on a variety of issues that will impact how our community grows into the future. Following the Joint Meeting on Feb. 7, I am optimistic about the direction we’re heading in when it comes to strategic planning and prioritizing our rural protection areas. It is essential for the County and municipalities to collaborate in order to maintain the quality of life our residents enjoy.”
Campione did not respond to questions about whether the county’s battle to stop the Thrill Hill annexation would affect future annexations. Nor did she respond to Hawkins’s criticism of the county’s actions regarding Thrill Hill.
But it is clear the dispute over annexations and RPAs will continue until the county and its municipalities can come to an agreement over how to handle strategic growth.