HUDSON — To a spiritual type like Jill Pittman, the back yard of her home is holy, a "piece of heaven."
She tools around her nearly 2 1/2 tree-shaded acres in an old golf cart adorned with pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. She says her daily rosary in a small yellow building where she also cares for cats infected with HIV.
So when developers submitted plans for a 499-unit recreational vehicle park that would border her property, she considered it a "desecration."
"Our hearts are broken by the intrusion," the retired nurse said of the effort to develop the triangular piece of woods that fronts U.S. 19, just north of Aripeka Road.
Pittman, the wife of retired clerk of courts Jed Pittman, is spearheading a campaign to get the project killed, or at least scaled back. County staffers are recommending approval with conditions when the plan comes up Tuesday before the County Commission. To do the project, developers need a rezoning. The land already is zoned for high density multifamily housing, but the rules require the project to be deemed a "master planned unit development" in order to become an RV park.
The existing neighborhood next door, called the Highlands, includes a mix of homes and some mobile homes. It is also home to some prominent residents, including a few doctors such as retired health department director Dr. Marc Yacht.
Jill Pittman decried the "greedy developers" whom she fears will clear cut the 43-acre site.
But in this case, the developers aren't out-of-town boogeymen and absentee landlords.
Developers are local philanthropists
They are members of the Miller family, the owners of Ja-Mar Travel Parks and local philanthropists.
Patriarch Lonnie Miller has served on local nonprofit boards. He and his wife, Sharon, have been active over the years at Gulfview Grace Brethren Church in New Port Richey. For more than 19 years, they turned their 7,300-square-foot home into a huge Christmas display that included mechanical trains, a Victorian village and a collection of 300 Cabbage Patch dolls. The display raised thousands of dollars for the Salvation Army, and in 1999, Pasco County commissioners commended the Millers for their holiday spirit and "sharing of joy and good will."
After polling neighbors, the family took down the display in 2002 after it caused traffic backups. They donated it to Word of Life Ministries, where Lonnie is a board member.
"They're good people," said Jerry Figurski, the land use attorney for the proposed project and family friend.
He said the third park — the family already operates two farther south on U.S. 19 — is being developed by Caleb and Logan Miller, two of Lonnie and Sharon's nine children. He said Caleb wanted to build a park that improved on the previous two.
"They are doing more than what the code requires," Figurski said. For example, the county rules require a 15-foot buffer; the Millers have agreed to 25 feet. Spaces for vehicles also will be bigger than what the code requires.
They also have agreed to put up a fence. However the fence and its placement is a point of contention.
"They want to put up a white plastic PVC fence," groused Pittman, who showed a photo of one at another Ja-Mar park. And she said they proposed putting it on the outer perimeter of the buffer, blocking Highlands residents' view of the trees.
"At least let us be able to see our green," she said.
Residents also fear that if the fence were built around the trees, they would be cut.
Not true, said Figurski. As part of the agreement, no trees in the buffer area can be cut without getting special permission from the county. He said one of the two existing parks lacks trees because the soil wasn't hospitable. The other has green space.
And the fence's placement, he said, is not set in stone. He had expressed concern about the park's liability should the buffer zone be left open, but the owners could move it wherever they choose.
"That's an issue we're willing to discuss," he said.
Figurski said the existing zoning could, in theory, allow three-story condos or apartments as close as 18 to 24 per acre that sit 15 feet from the property line. An RV, he points out, is only about 14 feet tall.
Other RV parks get favorable reviews
Online reviews of the Ja-Mar parks on U.S. 19 reveal descriptions of clean, well-managed properties. Alcohol is not allowed in the clubhouses.
"Everything is immaculately maintained," one reviewer wrote. "Office staff are cheerful and helpful."
"Spotlessly clean," wrote another.
Yacht said steps should be taken to ensure the buffer zone remains "sacrosanct and never developed."
"It is unfortunate that a beautiful piece of land will be stripped but a few things can be done to minimize the impact," he wrote in an e-mail to commissioners. He went on to add that he has known Lonnie Miller for years through their work together for the West Pasco Salvation Army. "He has raised thousands of dollars and was at one time the chairman of the Domestic Violence Committee."
In addition to the uncut buffer zone, Yacht asked that the number of RV spaces be cut to 200 and that the developers pave a sugar-sand road on the north end of the project. He also expressed concern about the number of people using water and sewage and asked for appropriate engineering to prevent flooding.
"We have had major flood issues in the Highlands during the rainy and hurricane seasons," he wrote.
Figurski said the way the park is configured will actually improve drainage in the neighborhood. Also, the park will be hooked up to the county's water and sewer system.
"It's going to be a nice project," he said. He acknowledged that the residents moved up there to enjoy a rural lifestyle.
"I'm sure they'd like to see it left just the way it is," he said.
You bet, said Donald Swihart, who has lived there 37 years.
"Who's going to want to buy our property and look at something like that?" he said. "They might as well come over here and just hold us up and steal our money. They should have to compensate us a little bit."
Swihart said even though a few of his neighbors are well known, he doubts it will make any difference.
"We're just farm people with some acreage in the country," he said. "They aren't going to listen to us."