Pasco to kill development review panel

Published June 6 2018

NEW PORT RICHEY — The Pasco Development Review Committee has voted itself out of existence.

County commissioners will get a chance to finalize that decision July 10.

"It’s about time,’’ said former commissioner Michael Cox.

Cox’ term on the county commission corresponded with a 2008 recommendation from the Urban Land Institute to disband the review committee, known commonly by the acronym of DRC. Until recently, it consisted of top county administrators plus representatives of the Pasco School District and Pasco Economic Development Council.

The Pasco EDC already withdrew from the committee earlier this year. In May, the review committee approved a new ordinance assigning its duties to a reconfigured Pasco Planning Commission.

That 10-member body will meet in its current form for the last time July 11. In its place, county commissioners will appoint a new six-member panel, plus a school district representative. The new group, scheduled for its initial meeting July 26, will review proposed development projects, zoning and land-use issues to ensure compliance with the county’s comprehensive land-use plan and other appropriate local controls.

The change means County Administrator Dan Biles and his top assistants can privately discuss proposed development projects without constraints from the Florida Government-in-the-Sunshine Law which prohibits two or more elected or appointed board members from discussing public matters outside an open meeting.

But it also means the public loses one of its avenues for influencing county government policy and land-use decisions.

Likewise, the ability for the public to see county administrators negotiating concessions from developers in a public setting will no longer exist after the group’s final meeting scheduled for July 12.

The Urban Land Institute report focused on efficiencies not extractions. It suggested ways to make Pasco government approvals more easy to navigate for private investors seeking to do business within the county. Many of recommendations were put in place years ago, but the Development Review Committee remained through the tenure of former county administrators John Gallagher and Michele Baker.

"I always thought the DRC was cumbersome,’’ said Cox, "and I have always believed a group of citizens sitting in judgement would be better. That allows the staff to work the way the staff does and present recommendations to the board.’’

Under current county rules, proposed developments must pass muster with the Development Review Committee and the Pasco Planning Commission, both of which make recommendations to the final authority — elected county commissioners.

Failure to gain approval from the review committee usually meant a death knell for projects. That’s what happened to a controversial proposal for a public safety campus and firing range in Land O’ Lakes in 2015. Other times, vote-counting land-use attorneys might pull projects from consideration until they could iron out additional details to gain the panel’s approval.

But even with review committee endorsement, proposed developments still had to repeat the process with the Planning Commission before getting a final public hearing with elected commissioners.

Bill Cronin, Pasco EDC president and CEO, said his group’s presence on the review committee led to the potential for inherent conflicts.

"I could not be on DRC and still speak to companies we work projects with. I could not advocate at DRC for those companies. It put me in a conflictual situation,’’ said Cronin.

Instead, he sent a surrogate, the now-retired John Walsh, who had been Pasco EDC vice president, to serve on the review committee. It meant Walsh could no longer talk to industrial prospects seeking to relocate or expand in Pasco.

"Our position at the EDC is to go out and market and find and grow this new business, not necessarily to regulate this new business,’’ Cronin said.

Dennis Smith of Wesley Chapel, a 15-year member of the Planning Commission, said he planned to apply for a position on the new board. Cox said he may do likewise. They will have plenty of company. The county received 18 applications for the six appointments in the first two weeks of the 30-day application period. Interested parties can apply through June 10.

Among the applicants are: Planning Commission members Chuck Grey, Calvin Branche, Peter Hanzel, Art Woodworth, Jim Goodchild and Jaimie Girardi; former Zephyrhills Mayor Cliff McDuffie; Trilby activist Richard Riley; Pasco Mosquito Control Board member Matthew Abbot; and Central and East Pasco Habitat for Humanity Chief Administrative Officer Crystal Lazar.

Smith said he was concerned initially about Planning Commission members publicly negotiating with developers, but said the county attorney’s office told him that work would still be done at the staff level before projects are considered by the new panel.

"I think it can work,’’ said Smith, "as long as staff does their job.’’

Reach C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2

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