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Pasco's Harbourtowne landowner owes $53,000 in back property taxes

HUDSON — Sun West Acquisition, the company that owns land where the SunWest Harbourtowne luxury resort is planned, owes Pasco County more than $53,000 in back taxes.

Records show that Sun West fell behind for its 2011 and 2012 taxes in connection with 584 acres it owns in northwest Pasco — land that is at the heart of the 1,000-acre Harbourtowne development.

John G. "Gary" Grubbs, one of the project's partners and the president of Sun West Acquisition, promised the company will pay up by March 1 and explained that it fell behind because Sun West's partners "didn't make a decision" regarding taxes at the time they were due.

He said plans for the development — including 2,500 homes, a 250-room hotel, 500 boat slips and 250,000 square feet of retail space — are still moving ahead.

"Our taxes will be paid. There is no money problem," said Grubbs. "We have big plans and at end of the day that (back taxes) will not stop this train."

Sun West and the county have endured a tangled relationship for years.

At odds at first over the ownership of a former limestone mine in Aripeka, the sides reached a settlement in 2007 in which Sun West agreed to donate 20 acres and $3 million in return for clear title to the remaining property — about 915 acres — where Harbourtowne was to be constructed. The county planned to use the land it received from Sun West to build a public park and wake-board facility.

Later — after county commissioners signed off on the Harbourtowne proposal in 2010 — Sun West and the county partnered to file an appeal against the Army Corps of Engineers when it rejected a permit to dredge a channel in the Gulf of Mexico. The county wanted the permit to allow for a public boat ramp next to the park to give boaters gulf access.

Commissioners are hoping the park and Harbourtowne together spark a wave of economic growth in the Aripeka and Hudson areas. Last week, officials were set to unseal developers' bids to develop the park, which is expected to open this summer.

Further entangling matters, Grubbs and his companies have inserted themselves into Pasco politics directly, giving regularly to political candidates and organizations in Pasco and Hernando counties for years.

Campaign records show Grubbs and some of the companies he is affiliated with, including Sun West Acquisition, contributed $6,700 to Hernando and Pasco candidates in 2011 and 2012 — when Sun West Acquisition didn't pay its property taxes — along with another $5,000 in 2012 to an organization called Let's Get to Work, formed to help Gov. Rick Scott, who's running for re-election.

Meanwhile, Grubbs is also delinquent for the 2012 tax year on a waterfront home and lot he owns in Hernando, records show.

Officials are divided about Sun West's failure to pay taxes on time.

"Those that want to make an impact on Pasco or influence politics in Pasco have every right to do so, but before they start dishing out thousands of dollars in political donations they should pay their property taxes," Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano said.

Even though Sun West is delinquent, its taxes were still paid. The bills were sold to investors in the form of interest-bearing tax certificates. Delinquent property owners have three years to redeem the certificates before the properties can be put up for auction.

Pasco Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said he has no problem with Sun West not paying on time. The commission's staunchest supporter of Harbourtowne, Mariano said the county hasn't lost a penny in tax revenue because Sun West's taxes were paid by the investors who now hold the tax certificates. Eventually, he said, Sun West will redeem the certificates to get caught up on its tax bill.

"If I thought there was more to it than that, I would say something, but the county is getting its money," he said. "I have no problem with it."

Former commission chair Ted Schrader said businesses often defer taxes, "but the bottom line is the taxpayer is not harmed by property owners not paying their taxes. If we were pursuing some sort of joint venture on their property, then yeah, I would be concerned about that, but if it's a business decision on their part whether to not pay their taxes, then someone else pays them."

However, he added, "It's never right to not pay your taxes. You have to pay your taxes because you could lose your property."

County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder said the tax issue could have posed a problem had Sun West sought a permit or site plan approval while it was delinquent. County ordinances prohibit land-use approvals to delinquent property owners.

But because commissioners approved the Harbourtowne project in 2010 — before Sun West became listed as delinquent — the company was in the clear to seek the approvals. It could face problems moving forward, but Steinsnyder said that's unlikely.

"It doesn't need any approvals now," he said.

Grubbs, meanwhile, said his company has worked diligently with the county to draft the plan, address environmental concerns and navigate the approval process.

"We've worked hard to take an old mine and turn it into a viable, beautiful project," he said. "We've done our part and will continue to do our part until we fulfil our obligation."

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pasco's Harbourtowne landowner owes $53,000 in back property taxes 01/10/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 10, 2014 6:25pm]
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