DADE CITY — Blame the "worm farm."
The squiggly lines on the map that outlined 134 lots of proposed tract housing on the south end of Berry Hill Estates made Pasco County commissioners squirm — and led to a two-hour struggle over how to handle a developer's rezoning request to put 266 homes on 403 acres across from Pasco-Hernando Community College.
"This is a very important area for us," new commission Chairman Jack Mariano told planner Mike Holbrook on Tuesday as commissioners voted to delay a decision until Jan. 6. "If we make a move on this, we'd be pulling a trigger."
The plan was the first to be proposed under new rules that allow for "conservation subdivisions." Such developments allow higher density developments as long as they meet certain requirements, such as setting aside 50 percent of land as open space.
Land owner Tracy Harris had proposed building homes on various lot sizes, with one area of higher density that would be hooked up to Dade City water and sewer.
Opponents nicknamed that area the "worm farm."
They argued that the lots were too small to be placed next to parts of the site that fall into the county's rural protection area.
"The density will not only adversely affect the immediate neighborhoods but will set an unintended precedent for future development in the northeast Pasco rural area," project opponent Pat Carver said.
"This is the gateway," said Carol Cruz. "The first project you put here should make this rural area a beautiful place."
Those words resonated with commissioners.
"I think there's just too much down in that worm," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri. She urged the developers to return with a better plan.
"You could have something so special, so different. I taught at that college for 26 years. Property is not selling because it's not special. Why don't you think out of the box, think creatively? You could really get your money back."
Commissioner Michael Cox said he was also uncomfortable with the tract housing section, which developers said was earmarked for "work force" housing. Developers have said they need at least 266 homes on the site to make it profitable, though the site can be rearranged.
"I think it's kind of cool that we have this protected area. I can't support 266-home density on this property. I think you're going to have to make some sort of compromise," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand.
But Commissioner Ted Schrader, in whose district Berry Hill lies, pointed out that the land can be developed under current zoning with no restrictions. Even mobile homes could go in.
"I'm concerned about the alternative," he said.
The development, which has lingered in the system for two years, has drawn tie votes when discussed by the county's top planners and the county Planning Commission, which is comprised of residents. Technically, the tie votes count as recommended denials.
The county's zoning office had recommended approving the rezoning request with conditions.
In other business
• Commissioners gave final approval Tuesday, despite strong opposition from real estate agents, to a foreclosure rescue plan that uses federal money to mainly rehabilitate older homes and provides less in direct down payment assistance.
The feds earmarked $19.5-million in emergency housing assistance in September to help Pasco County, one of the hardest-hit counties in the state by foreclosures. The county planned to use most of the money to provide down payment assistance loans of up to $15,000 to help lower-income families buy homes.
But on Nov. 5, community development director George Romagnoli told the County Commission that banks and U.S. Housing and Urban Development officials wanted the money to go toward fixing up the abandoned homes — some of which are old — to resist hurricanes and meet current codes before they are resold.
So the county rewrote its plan to use $10-million of the grant to allow nonprofit agencies to buy and rehabilitate homes. The amount set aside for down payment loans was cut to $6.5-million.
West Pasco Board of Realtors president Greg Armstrong and the heads of the county's other Boards of Realtors urged commissioners to keep most of the money in homebuyer loans to provide broader and faster relief. But county officials said they risked losing the grant if the federal agency rejected their proposal.
Money could start being used in January, but it must be committed within 18 months and spent in four years.
• Commissioners approved on consent a proposal to negotiate with two companies for the development of a proposed sports complex.
• Commissioners voted to spend $700,000 of Penny for Pasco money to buy 117 acres of Pasco Palms property near the county's Eagle Point park as part of the county's environmentally sensitive lands program.
• Commissioners approved a development agreement to help clear the way for investment company T. Rowe Price to build off State Road 54. The company cannot expand at its current Tampa location, and Pasco is vying with other states to land the new location. Cox said he had met with company officials on Friday and "they are very aware of what we did today."
• Commissioners voted Mariano as the new chairman, replacing outgoing Chairman Schrader. Mulieri was chosen vice chairwoman.
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.