DADE CITY — In the end, it all boiled down to political realism, and the county administrator's own affinity for the east Pasco hills.
"When I leave a bad County Commission meeting, I drive up there and I'm going, 'God, this is beautiful,' " John Gallagher told those gathered Thursday for the Pasco Development Review Committee meeting.
The committee, comprised of the county's top employees and a school district representative, was set to decide the fate of a developer's request for a 266-home planned community on nearly 403 acres of hills nestled up against land designated a rural protection area.
After listening to neighbors' pleas for peace and quiet and against more rooftops, Gallagher sent the developers back to the drawing board and urged them to work toward receiving the residents' blessing.
"This is going to be a tough row to hoe for you guys," he said. Even if the employee committee gave the initial okay on technical grounds, he said, the controversial development would have more problems once it lands in the lap of elected officialdom.
"I suggest you and the property owners have a meeting with the residents to come up with a compromise," he said.
Opponents, at least one of whom wept at the lectern, expressed relief.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Noah Kaaa, who lives on Platt Road, a dirt two-lane route that would run north of Berry Hill Estates. The Kaaas moved into a farm-style house on 5 acres there 18 months ago to escape the strip malls and tract houses in Riverview.
"We thought we were in the country," his wife, Tanya, said as the tears started to flow. "I didn't think I'd be fighting so soon."
One by one, residents lamented how, if the project were approved, the new neighbors' houses would leave them without places to go hunting, how the new neighbors' cars would cause more traffic accidents, how the new neighbors' streetlights would take away their view of the night sky.
One resident showed a map of a previous property's owners' plan to build 202 homes, the number allowed under the land's current zoning and asked why the number couldn't stay at that level or go lower.
Developers had asked to put 266 homes on the land, clustered in varying densities. The most dense section would put 121 lots on slightly more than 33 acres, while others called for half-acre, 1-acre and a handful of 5-acre lots. The developers were seeking to offer a project similar to "conservation subdivision" with half the property forever set aside as green space. The property is off Blanton Road, across from Pasco-Hernando Community College.
Residents criticized the project as incompatible with the surrounding homes, many of which sit on 5 acres.
"Why don't they make a committee and work with us?" asked Wendell Greenhalgh, who railed against "out of town developers" who try to "ram this down our throats."
Thanks to Gallagher, that's what they got. A meeting is now set for May 20, with the matter set to be reintroduced at the development review committee meeting May 29 in Dade City.
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.