NEW PORT RICHEY — Top county planners took a first step Thursday to clear the way for the construction of a new community college campus, a hospital and a huge recreational complex that could include a hockey rink, sports fields and other entertainment at Wiregrass Ranch.
But not before hearing from other developers embroiled in a dispute with the original landowners over development rights. They asked that approval be postponed so they could express concerns.
"I'm here to object to what's going on," said John Dowd of the Goodman Co., which co-owns the Shops at Wiregrass with Forest City Enterprises. "We've been asking for months and months to get copies of documents and to be involved in this process. We've invested $150 million in Pasco County and are probably the largest corporate citizens in Wesley Chapel … When we have not had a seat at the table to be involved in the process to see how this affects our property values, that's just not right."
The two companies, which in joint projects are called GoodForest LLC, are currently involved in a dispute with the owners of Wiregrass Ranch, the Porter family. This resulted last week in the Porters suing the county. The lawsuit, which the Porters' attorney described as "friendly" toward the county, involved the county's granting approval for GoodForest to build a Red Robin Gourmet Burger restaurant near the mall.
The Porters say they control development rights for Wiregrass Ranch and that GoodForest had not secured their permission to build a Red Robin or helped pay its share of required road improvements. The county, which said it lacked the authority to decide the matter, agreed that a judge should sort it out. Hence, the lawsuit.
Bill Merrill, an attorney for the Porters and their development arm, Locust Branch Development, called the requests for postponement a tactic to gain an advantage in the dispute.
"They are using this as leverage to get one-up on us," he said.
County Administrator John Gallagher, reluctant to be put in the role of referee, told attorneys to work out their differences before the matter is set to go before county commissioners on Sept. 7.
"We don't ever see any of your private agreements," he said. "We get caught in the middle and try to move projects ahead."
County officials, sitting as the Development Review Committee, then unanimously approved the changes, which county staff had also recommended.
• Setting aside enough land to accommodate a 300,000-square-foot "attractions and recreation facility," according to papers filed with the county.
• Quadrupling the number of hotel rooms from 120 to 480, adding an 18-hole golf course and specifying nearly 200,000 of the more than 2 million square feet of proposed office space for medical buildings to support Wesley Chapel Medical Center, the 80-bed hospital that is set to be built on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard north of State Road 56.
• Reducing the number of homes by 1,205.
• Adding a land use to clear the way for a new branch of Pasco-Hernando Community College, which could accommodate 707 full-time students or more if some are part-time students.
• Giving flexibility in the location of a county park. This could be key if the county approves a proposed land swap that would take proposed sports fields off a site that now has no road access.
"This is something the county has been pushing and something in this particular economy happens to work out well for us," Merrill said of the request to devote more land to commercial uses and less to homes.
He also presented letters of support from executives of Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, which is a partner in building the hospital, Pasco-Hernando Community College and the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce.
J.D. Porter, a member of the ranching family and a manager for the property, said the project will bring much needed jobs to the area.
He said the county's cooperation shows its commitment to its latest slogan, "Bringing Opportunities Home."
In other business, the development review committee approved a rezoning that would someday put 1,999 homes on 825.5 acres at the future State Road 56 extension and Morris Bridge Road in east-central Pasco.
The residential development, called River Landing, would include 1,257 single family homes, 400 multi-family homes and 342 town homes. The land had been classified as allowing three homes per acre in the county's long-term growth plan, so Thursday's move to rezone it from agricultural to a master planned development was to put it in line with the land use rules, said attorney Clarke Hobby, who represents property owners, the Linville family of Zephyr Egg Co.
The agreement with the county calls for the owners to donate the right of way needed to extend SR 56 east, and a site for a middle or high school, Hobby said. County staff recommended top brass approve the change, saying in a memo that the land is in the county's southern market area, which is "considered an urban gateway opportunity area, where the bulk of urban development should occur."
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.