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Pasco officials approve revamped plans for Starkey Ranch

Starkey Ranch is hitting the reset button.

Four years after county commissioners approved a plan for the last piece of the Starkey family's namesake ranch, they approved a new plan this week for a 5,000-home development on 2,500 acres along State Road 54.

The initial approval came amid the historic economic recession and Florida's real estate meltdown. The new plan could be an early indication that the home market is starting to come back to life.

"This is the first major community in Pasco County after the recession," said Pat Gassaway, an engineering consultant for the Starkeys.

Wheelock Street Capital has signed an initial contract to buy the eastern portion of the project, which is essentially the proposed downtown and surrounding homes near SR 54 and Gunn Highway. That section includes about half of the development's proposed homes. The first homes could go up in the first three months of 2014.

Starkey Ranch is also the first major development to be approved after a major growth overhaul in Pasco. While development slowed to a crawl over the past several years, officials have been revamping their growth policies to encourage dense development along the county's western and southern edges. Gassaway praised county staffers for their "desire to build consensus, not just to regulate."

Trey Starkey, whose family owns the land, added: "The attitude in the county is 'open for business.' The staff was really working to get this thing across the finish line."

Among other things, the project is getting a break under the county's new "mobility fee" system, which is the new method of calculating how much developers pay for road projects. Under the plan, the developer will pay $30 million. But the county would chip in another $12 million toward road projects on Starkey Ranch's behalf because the plan fits with the county's efforts to promote business and smart growth projects. About half of that figure is tied to office and industrial uses, and the other half is tied to the mixed-use development pattern intended to reduce car trips.

Many aspects of the new plan are similar to those of the 2008 plan. Both envision a dense village at the corner of SR 54 and Gunn Highway. Both call for a business park at SR 54 and Trinity Boulevard. Both include a development pattern heavily reliant on diffuse grid networks, bike trails and pedestrian-friendly elements.

The new plan drops some architectural elements, such as elevated front porches and alleys, that proved too costly in a down market.

The new plan adds nearly 800 new homes, for a total of 5,050. The bulk of those would be clustered in four villages that would each require a park and a civic or office building at the core. Those areas would feature dense development and include shorter blocks that are friendlier to walkers.

About 1,000 homes would be located in the "suburban" area of the project between the villages and the 16,000-acre Starkey Wilderness Preserve. A portion of the area was originally planned as conservation land. Some of that land would still serve as mitigation for wetland damage associated with the development.

The plan loses 94,000 square feet of office space but gains 130,000 square feet of light industrial space. It includes a 220-room hotel, but plans no longer call for a movie theater or an assisted living facility.

The plan calls for a 40-acre park adjacent to a future elementary and middle school. The county could later double the size of the park, and one option is to build more adult softball fields.

One remaining sticking point at Tuesday's commission meeting was a proposal from county staffers to dedicate a 51-acre strip of land as a conservation buffer along the southern edge of the nearly 19,000-acre Starkey Wilderness Preserve. That was rejected unanimously by commissioners.

"I think the 19,000 acres is more than enough," said Commissioner Henry Wilson.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pasco officials approve revamped plans for Starkey Ranch 09/12/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 12, 2012 9:53pm]

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