NEW PORT RICHEY — Residents in a west Pasco subdivision could get help from Florida taxpayers paying an assessment to stop a controversial development.
State lawmakers amended an environmental cleanup bill to provide $1.5 million to pay down a 15-year annual assessment that Pasco officials pitched to residents of Heritage Lakes. The county wants to buy 41.5 acres to conserve the land and halt a developer's bid to build an apartment complex known as the Oaks at Riverside.
Under the plan, which Pasco County commissioners could finalize next month, the county will use $3 million in reserve funds to buy the property where developer Christopher Scherer was proposing the 102-unit development.
About 1,600 homeowners living nearby would pay a $135 annual assessment to reimburse the county for the purchase.
But state lawmakers, arguing the assessment is too high, are trying to use state funds to lower it. The idea was added to a House bill dealing with a range of environmental issues. If signed by Gov. Rick Scott, the homeowners' assessment would be cut in half. Both the House and Senate passed the bill unanimously.
"I don't think homeowners should be responsible to pay for property to alleviate compatibility issues and flooding issues," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity.
He said he plans to seek another $1.5 million next year to eliminate the assessment altogether.
Also backing the amendment, Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, said the residents shouldn't be on the hook for recent flooding as well as future problems the apartment complex might bring. If the project moved forward, the state could be forced to correct a larger flooding problem down the road, she said.
"It's a high assessment and these people are suffering for something that they didn't do," Murphy said.
County commissioners were concerned about flooding, too, though Scherer met all zoning and land use requirements and was legally entitled to move forward.
The project, on Amazon Drive about a half-mile east of Little Road, has worried residents since Scherer bought the land in 2007 for $1.5 million and announced his plans. In addition to the apartments, the plans called for a 3,000-square-foot clubhouse, swimming and splash pools, a playground, picnic pavilions, tennis and basketball courts, a car wash area, a 2-acre park with an open play area, parking lots and seven garages.
The site is surrounded by single-family homes in Heritage Lakes, Riverside Chase and Riverside Village.
Scherer agreed to sell to the county in late March after Commissioner Kathryn Starkey and county staff suggested buying the property and seeking a reimbursement from residents. Officials also talked about adding a retention pond to the site to control flooding; however, that project has not been funded.
Several hurdles remain before the purchase and assessment idea move forward. The sale has yet to close and officials still need to hear from residents before creating the assessment district, known technically as a Municipal Service Benefit Unit.
A community meeting is set May 22 to go over the assessment and get residents' input. Commissioners will vote on whether to approve the assessment at a June 24 board meeting.
"I imagine that there is a large number of folks that are relieved that something has been done about that development," said William Gillies, a Riverside Village Estates resident and former president of We Are 5533 Strong, a civic group opposed to the apartment complex. "If the state has stepped in, then obviously that's a relief to the homeowners in the areas that were going to be assessed. I imagine everybody kind of wins in this situation."
Rich Shopes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.