WESLEY CHAPEL — Four years ago, Pasco County became the new owner of 4 acres in an industrial park near Interstate 75.
No money exchanged hands. ComPark 75's owner turned over the future "public safety site" at the back end of the park as part of a 1999 deal in which the county agreed to give up its rights to explore for drinking water on the property.
But today the land remains unused — and Pasco has no long-term plans to locate sheriff's or fire rescue operations on it. So the park's newest owner has taken an unusual step:
He asked for the land back.
"The unique location of this property directly on I-75 makes it desirable for a multitude of users," Larry Morgan, president of HR Pasco LLP, wrote to County Administrator John Gallagher. "We also feel that placing the parcel back on the tax rolls is also in the county's best interest."
Gallagher refused, but Morgan, the retired founder of the Tires Plus chain, did not take no for an answer.
His representatives took the case to Pasco commissioners, who have directed county attorneys to find a way to return the land to private hands. The issue could come up as soon as Tuesday's commission meeting.
Pasco can't just give the land back to the owner, but they do have at least two options, said senior assistant county attorney David Goldstein.
Commissioners could declare it surplus and allow anybody, including the owner, to bid on it. The land's market value is $361,074, according to Pasco Property Appraiser Mike Wells.
Or they could return the land with deed restrictions that say it can be used only for certain types of businesses, such as those with higher paying jobs, Goldstein said.
That's the direction that Commissioner Pat Mulieri said she wants to see the county take.
"It just seems simple to me," she said. "We keep talking about economic development."
Why exactly did the county end up with the land in the first place? Gallagher said that more than a decade ago, the original landowner was trying to sell the property. But there was a problem: Pasco's so-called "water rights" on the property, a relic of the Tampa Bay water wars, were a cloud over the title.
He said Pasco agreed to give up the rights, making the eventual sale much easier, but demanded something in return: 4 acres for a public safety site.
At the time, then-Sheriff Lee Cannon was scouting for a location for a helipad.
"To me it was a simple business deal," Gallagher said. "They wanted the water rights taken away."
The previous owner was supposed to deed the property to Pasco by 2000, but the land wasn't in the county's hands until 2006. The property totals 4.6 acres.
A helipad at ComPark won't likely happen. Sheriff Bob White is building a hangar near the jail in Land O'Lakes. And 2005 updates to the county's emergency services plan specify no use for the parcel at ComPark.
Gallagher said he couldn't rule out one day needing the land for public safety operations. The nearest fire station is about 2 miles away on Old Pasco Road.
At the same time, though, he said Pasco was not required to use it for just that purpose.
Though the county has referred to the land as a public safety site, Gallagher said he thought that was irrelevant because the real estate deal was over water rights.
ComPark's owner isn't the only one who recognizes the significance of land with frontage on a major highway.
In fact, the county itself has discussed leasing the land to an aviation-related business that is considering a move to Pasco.
ComPark's owner says it should be the one putting together such a deal. The owner told Pasco officials he is willing to reserve that property for the same business as long as there is a drop-dead date for the company to commit, said Commissioner Jack Mariano.
Morgan recognizes the land's potential, said Spring Engineering president Rich Bekesh, who lobbied the commissioners on Morgan's behalf. He said Morgan's team includes staff who would know how to market the property to potential industries.
"He's a very savvy, aggressive businessperson," said Bekesh, "and that land is prime land and allows the visibility of ComPark."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.