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Pasco commission clears way for controversial apartment project

NEW PORT RICHEY — More than a year after applying for permits, Clearwater-based Scherer Development got approval Tuesday to build a 102-unit apartment complex despite bitter opposition from a citizens' group that got help from two powerful allies: state Rep. Richard Corcoran and Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano.

Pasco County commissioners voted 3-2 to deny an appeal from the residents' group We Are 5333 Strong Inc. as well as residents of four nearby single-family home neighborhoods. This marked the second time the commission heard the appeal. In August, commissioners voted 3-2 to send the case back to county planners after residents raised concerns about traffic, noise, flooding and property values. They said a policy to adopt compatibility standards was never followed up on. Had it been, they said, the proposed complex would be rejected.

But after a threat of a lawsuit from the developer last month, commissioners agreed to reconsider the matter.

"This (first) hearing was pretty troubling to me as it was going on," said Commissioner Jack Mariano, who first voted with the majority to send the case back, but provided the swing vote Tuesday to deny the appeal along with Commissioners Ted Schrader and Kathryn Starkey. Commissioners Henry Wilson Jr. and Pat Mulieri sided with the residents.

Mariano said he did some research and learned there was no factual basis to overturn the staff recommendation for approval. He said the county should change the land use rules so that future contested cases "go straight to court."

Residents on Tuesday expressed the same concerns as in the previous hearings.

Corcoran and Fasano spoke in favor of the residents, saying the county had a legitimate basis for doing so. Corcoran urged commissioners not to be fooled by the developer's "legalese."

"You have immunity," he said. "You'd have to do something so patently obvious to those on the third-grade level that is patently pernicious and mean, that would be overstepping your bounds."

He urged the commission to delay the project for 90 days to get an independent engineer report to verify previous studies. It might cost the county $250,000, he said, but it would be "penny wise" to do that and avoid having to ask the Legislature for millions of dollars to fix flooding problems later.

Robert Lincoln, an attorney for Scherer, said Tuesday that the law was clear that projects that meet land use rules must be approved.

"They tried to turn this into a political issue," he said of the residents. "They have delayed this project for over a year, screwing around with appeals and never put one piece of competent substantial evidence on the record that this does not meet the code."

After Tuesday's vote, residents vowed to take revenge at the ballot box and possibly in court.

The complex would include six two-story units, a 3,000-square-foot clubhouse, swimming and splash pools, a playground, picnic pavilions, tennis and basketball courts, a mulched car wash area, a 2-acre park with an open play area, parking lots and seven garages. The apartments would be on Amazon Drive, just south of Heritage Lake.

The 41-acre site has been woods for years but was zoned multifamily in 1985. In 2005 it was approved for 102 condominiums, which residents did not oppose. But the housing bust stalled the project, and the land was sold to Scherer, which revived the plans.

Lisa Buie can be reached at buietimeswriter@gmail.com or (813) 909-4604.

Pasco commission clears way for controversial apartment project 10/22/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 11:22pm]
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