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Residents fight proposed apartments near Heritage Lake

NEW PORT RICHEY — Neighbors of a proposed apartment complex raised a host of reasons Thursday why they thought the development was a bad idea, even though county staff said it met all land use requirements.

Increased traffic, compromised child safety, noise and lower property values all made the list.

"We can only see that an apartment complex, if not successful, will turn into a government-subsidized community," said Carl Annalora, president of the board for Heritage Lake, a neighborhood near the proposed Oaks at Riverview, which would sit amid six residential subdivisions near Little Road.

In the end, residents' questions about stormwater drainage persuaded Pasco County's top planners to put off deciding until Jan. 24 whether to uphold or overturn the staff's approval of the development.

"We need to do this right," said Suzanne Salichs, the assistant county administrator for public services.

Nearly 200 residents, including state Rep. Mike Fasano, showed up to the Development Review Committee meeting to appeal the staff's decision. They expressed concern that the stormwater permit was based on outdated information and had hired an engineer to review it. But the engineer wasn't at Thursday's hearing and said that the state Department of Environmental Protection had not supplied all the records he had requested.

That evidence must be provided to the Development Review Committee if residents want to make it part of the record for any further appeals. If the DRC votes on the appeal without that information, residents can't add it to the record when the matter goes to the County Commission.

"Citizens are less organized than developers who are familiar with the process," said County Administrator John Gallagher, who also warned the residents that they would not be given another reprieve.

"Bring your experts or you won't be happy with the decision," he said.

The delay came despite protests from the attorney for Clearwater-based Scherer Development who said opponents had plenty of time to do their homework.

"It's not fair to my client," attorney Barbara Wilhite said. "We would like to move forward."

The 41-acre site has been woods for years but was zoned multifamily in 1985. Neighbors say they were told it would always be a wildlife preserve. In 2005 it was approved for 102 condominiums, which residents did not oppose. But the housing bust stalled the project, and the land was sold to Scherer.

In September, county staffers approved the Oaks Apartments at Riverside Village. Site plans for a first phase call for six two-story units, a 3,000-square-foot clubhouse, swimming and splash pools, a playground, picnic pavilions, tennis and basketball courts, a mulched car wash area, a 2-acre park with an open play area, parking lots and seven garages.

Opposition began building months before that, as soon as Scherer filed an application in May. Homeowners started a website, weare5533strong.com, and raised thousands of dollars to hire a land use attorney. They also found an ally in Fasano, a former neighbor who filed the appeal to the county on behalf of the residents.

On Thursday, Fasano urged the DRC to find a way to stop the project.

"The county has the power to say to those developers you're going to do certain things before we approve anything," he said. "This county has the ability to put enough pressure and if you will, a load of expenses on a developer to stop him or her from putting apartments in there."

If that wasn't possible, he said, then at least wait and give the residents' expert a chance to be heard.

Fasano also pointed out that the permits issued by DEP had been placed on hold because residents of Heritage Lake were not informed about them as required in an agreement between DEP and the previous owner. Heritage Lake is challenging the permits.

"I don't even know why this is even being allowed to go forward," he said after the meeting.

County staff said all requirements were met, and ticked off a long list. But further questioning of the developer's engineer showed that the stormwater plan was based on calculations from 2003, before the spate of hurricanes that hit in 2004 and before Tropical Storm Debby, which flooded roads in the area this past summer.

"They say Debby was a 100-year storm," said Bob Gillies, a member of We Are 5533 Strong's board. "But these have been happening every three or four years."

Residents fight proposed apartments near Heritage Lake 11/29/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 29, 2012 9:22pm]
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