Two months after a panel of outside consultants delivered a $115,000 critique of Pasco County's growth planning, the first wave of reform is shifting the way the county's development planners decide exemptions.
County attorneys at Thursday's Development Review Committee, which comprises Pasco's top staff planners, laid out eight conditions under which the committee can grant variances. The lawyers said meeting any — not all — of these conditions automatically gives applicants a right to the exemption.
In one form or another, the conditions existed before, though they are made clearer now. They include noneconomic hardship; conflict with Pasco's growth blueprint; net economic benefit; innovative building design that supports Pasco's comprehensive plan; improved technology or design; public health, safety and welfare; requirements of state or federal law; or meets criteria set out in other parts of county law, which must be specifically cited.
But the key change lies in one word.
The rules now say the committee shall grant the variance if any of the conditions are met. The rule used to say the committee may grant the variance, a legally vague power that developers and their lawyers widely disliked.
" 'May' allows unbridled discretion," said Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein. "It allows you to say, 'Even if you meet the criteria, I don't like you, so you're not getting a variance.' "
In late April, the Urban Land Institute told Pasco that it used too much "planning by variance."
Thursday's preview of the rule changes is an attempt to tighten the loose strands of variances.
But it will not end the tussle between how the private and public sectors try to control the rules.
Even with the elimination of "unbridled discretion," Pasco planners still retain enormous influence over how they can interpret terms like "net economic benefit."
"It still involves judgment," Goldstein said. "It's a balancing act."
But planners cast the changes as a clarification of rights and rules.
"People want predictability," said County Administrator John Gallagher. "They don't want a crapshoot."
In other matters Thursday, the Development Review Committee approved:
• A 239-unit condominium complex called Quail Ridge at Shady Hills Road and Sandhill Crane Drive in Shady Hills.
• A 96-unit apartment complex for seniors at U.S. 19 and Gordon Drive in Port Richey.
• An 11,000-square-foot day care facility in Wesley Chapel called Kiddie Academy, at Wells and Curley roads.
• Land clearance and a stormwater management plan for Watergrass Town Center, an 88-acre downtown promenade proposal at Curley and Overpass roads in Wesley Chapel.
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4613.