At the heart of Pat Carver's opposition last year to a new residential subdivision near her home in rural east Pasco was this question:
"Do we really need it?" she said.
On paper, Pasco County has enough housing planned to accommodate decades' worth of population growth. That's not counting, of course, the existing homes left vacant because of the housing market collapse.
The needs question is helping drive Carver and others to support Hometown Democracy, a controversial ballot initiative that would let citizens vote on major developments in their communities.
"When you consider the mess we're in now, with so many homes approved that we don't need, maybe the citizens should be heard," said Carver, who lives near the site of the future Citrus Ridge subdivision.
But in some ways, state officials are beating them to the punch.
The state Department of Community Affairs told county officials last year that they intend to challenge land use plan amendments that increase residential density in Pasco.
Part of their reasoning: Pasco already has plenty of potential housing.
One case in point is Central Pasco Employment Village, a 2,400 acre-proposal for 4,500 housing units and 4.65 million square feet of nonresidential uses off State Road 52 and Ehren Cutoff.
State officials say in their objection to the proposal that the proposal fails to analyze "the amount of vacant, developable land that is currently available to support future population growth."
Pasco County growth management administrator Richard Gehring said county officials, who are trying to avoid more developments that keep Pasco as a bedroom community, plan to tie approval of the project's residential units to job creation. They hope such mixed-use projects are a departure from the sprawling pattern of residential-only subdivisions.
"We end up doing what we think is energy efficient," he said.
But state officials want to see the job numbers first. "It gets into the chicken or the egg debate," Gehring said.
Consistent figures about Pasco's potential residential developments are hard to come by.
The Department of Community Affairs says Pasco County has 277,000 "potential developable" residential units — enough to accommodate population growth through 2035 and still have 90,000 empty homes, according to department spokesman James Miller.
(Asked last week exactly how the department came up with the number, officials could not say. The staff member who calculated that figure is no longer with the department, said Miller.)
The Urban Land Institute, which put together a 2008 report saying the county needed to crank up job-generating developments, said that Pasco had entitled 572,000 dwelling units — more than four times what it needed over the next 20 years.
And another document, the county's strategic plan, shows that roughly 169,000 units are now entitled through zoning and development of regional impact approvals. Of those, around 45,000 have been built, according to Gehring.
What to make of all the numbers?
Gehring said there's a difference between what's on paper and what actually gets built: "I'm not willing to call it over-allocated," he said.
He said that just because a property is entitled to a certain number of units, that doesn't mean they'll get built. He estimates that property owners lose about 30 percent of their land to deal with such things as infrastructure or drainage.
And market forces also determine whether something gets built. He said that the northern section of the county, for instance, has the potential for about 80,000 residential units. Landowners may have received those entitlements decades ago. But would a developer ever see a market for those homes?
"I am a free market believer and so, yes, you have all these homes entitled," Commissioner Michael Cox said. "But I think the free market is going to determine if they're going to get built."
Commissioner Ted Schrader, whose east Pasco district is in some ways ground zero for the debate, said that when it comes to the county's future land use maps, "I don't there there's any question that there's some over-allocation."
He said that's why a proposal known as "transfer of development rights" could be a critical component to the county's future.
That mechanism, which officials have begun studying, would allow landowners in an area the county wants to preserve — namely, rural east Pasco — to sell "density credits" to landowners along State Road 54 and U.S. 19, the two areas where officials want to concentrate future growth and redevelopment.
If it works, said Gehring, the county would not be increasing residential density; instead, it would be moving growth from one part of the county to another.
But that program could be a long time in the making. And meanwhile, state community affairs officials say they have to contemplate the maximum units that can be built, or "the worst-case scenario" as the spokesman put it, when reviewing new proposals.
That makes sense to those critical of new development in the county.
"Why are commissioners approving developments that aren't going to get built?" said east Pasco resident Richard Riley.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.