New plan suggested for former orange groves in west Pasco

NEW PORT RICHEY — Between the strip malls and houses to its north and the strip malls and houses to its south lies what Commissioner Ann Hildebrand called "the last blank piece of paper in west Pasco":

Nearly 970 acres of woods and former citrus groves straddling a section of Little Road, a significant share of the holdings accumulated by the late O.J. Harvey, a thrifty entrepreneur who built his fortune in oranges.

Under the county's land use plan, as many as 3,400 homes could be built one day on that property, which is between Plathe and Decubellis roads.

But Pasco planners don't want their last blank piece of paper to be more of the same.

So officials propose giving Harvey's family even more options, including commercial and employment uses — in exchange for a project that would look like a small walkable city, with a grid system, core commercial "village" area, four plazas and even a pedestrian bridge arching over Little Road.

In their proposal, officials say they want to create a "sense of place" on that stretch of Little Road.

On Wednesday, Pasco commissioners will decide whether to move ahead with a staff proposal to change the county's land use plan and allow such a mix of uses.

The new land use classification, which would be called "New Port Corners," would give the property owners the same number of houses (almost 3,400) but also permit 1.4 million square feet of retail and 3.4 million square feet of employment (medical clinics or light industry, for instance) and office space.

In broader terms, the new classification has a handful of guiding principles, including the use of plenty of connected open space, pedestrian- and transit-friendly designs, and a mix of complementary uses.

Officials compare the potential project to Baldwin Park, a planned community just a couple of miles outside downtown Orlando.

The Harvey family has filed no plans or given any indication it wants to do anything with the property. Pasco's planning department, which got new leadership last year, has been playing a more proactive role in shaping future projects. And there is another factor affecting county officials' timing: Hometown Democracy, a ballot initiative that would let voters veto government-approved land use changes.

At the first hearing on the proposed changes, Pasco commissioners expressed support for the concept.

"I think the overall vision is going to be pretty cool," said Hildebrand. "This will be a showcase."

Barbara Wilhite, a lawyer for the Harvey family, which controls the land through two trusts, said in a recent interview that her clients support the county's overall vision and principles for their land, too.

But the family did not support a proposed ordinance that would give teeth to that concept. Wilhite said that the level of specificity in the ordinance — the architectural standards, for instance — would tie her clients' hands when they get around to selling the property.

"The goal is to set a vision and those were one set of concept plans," Wilhite said. "It's hard to tell if that's how the vision will be implemented."

Some commissioners noted at the meeting that the Harvey family was getting new entitlements as part of the deal. "In return, we ask that we plan this together," said Commissioner Michael Cox.

But in the end, commissioners directed the property owner and county staff to work out a compromise.

So now the revised proposal contains the new mix of entitlements and the various goals but says the concrete details would not kick in before December 2020.

The Harveys — O.J. Harvey's widow, Doris, of Tampa, and their two daughters — referred all questions about their land to Wilhite.

A former worker with the Elfers Citrus Growers Associations' Packing House, O.J. Harvey worked his way into management then began scooping up his own groves during the Depression, acquiring many of them for as little as $25 an acre through tax certificate sales, according to a 1999 profile of Doris Harvey in the Pasco Times.

When he died in 1984, he had amassed more than 2,100 acres of agricultural land in Pasco and about 200 acres in Hillsborough County.

That left his business-savvy widow in control of a great deal of prime property, and gave her considerable leverage in negotiating with county, state and school officials on rights of way for roads and school sites over the years.

Four of the family-controlled trusts still own a lot of valuable land in Pasco, roughly 30 different parcels that are worth about $27 million, according to county appraiser records.

Last year the Harvey family got approvals to reclassify 200 acres it owns near the Anclote River in Elfers to allow dense residential development, business and light industry.

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

New plan suggested for former orange groves in west Pasco 04/10/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 10, 2010 2:48pm]

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