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County approves Epperson Ranch plan for 4,000 homes and a town center

DADE CITY — Less than a month ago, Epperson Ranch developers asked for zoning changes needed to turn 1,700 acres of farmland off Curley Road into a nearly 4,000-home community with stores and offices.

But Pasco commissioners said: Not yet.

Not until officials could finally see a critical piece of the puzzle that the developers had promised but not put on paper: Plans for the neighborhood-style town center that Epperson Ranch would share with two other nearby residential projects, WaterGrass and Ashley Grove.

County officials have been pushing in recent years for town centers, an anti-sprawl design that creates "downtowns" with retail and office space.

That seemed a tall order for a project that has been shuffling along and just last November changed owners. But at Tuesday's commission meeting, there it was:

The master plan for "Promenade Town Center," a new downtown on 243 acres about 1.5 miles east of Interstate 75 complete with 27 miles of pedestrian walkways, retail and office space; an internal transit plan; an urban plaza; and parks. The downtown would incorporate about 1,200 townhomes and apartments from all three residential projects.

Epperson representative Patrick Gassaway called it "remarkable" that the plan had been put together in less than a month.

Of course, Epperson's owner, Metro Development Group, had an incentive to get things rolling.

Commissioner Michael Cox said that before last month's meeting, Metro representatives had shown him some initial plans for the proposed town center. "They were dangling the hook," he said in an interview.

So Cox said he was surprised last month when Epperson appeared before commissioners with nothing but a promise that it would be done one day.

He said his fear was that Metro, which does not typically build town centers, would get all of its housing approvals in place and sell the property, leaving the town center to founder.

Privately, he said, he told the developers after that meeting: No town center, no zoning changes.

So over the past three weeks, Epperson took the lead among the trio of developers on the town center project. County officials cleared the decks to get it ready for commissioners, Cox said.

WaterGrass, which already has a little more than 170 houses built, had put together many elements of that town center, which were incorporated into Epperson's proposal, said Ben Harrill, a lawyer for WaterGrass.

"They picked up the ball and ran with it," he said.

So on Tuesday, the Promenade Town Center master plan was approved. Next in line was Epperson Ranch's zoning request: Approved.

Just don't expect any of it to be built any time soon.

Under the agreements approved this week, completion of road and utilities for the town center could be more than nine years away, depending on how fast home building in the three projects gets started up again.

"If we don't have rooftops around us, you guys don't want us to go up," Gassaway told commissioners. "If the houses around this town center aren't there, we're in trouble."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

County approves Epperson Ranch plan for 4,000 homes and a town center 07/15/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 9:30pm]
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