DADE CITY — Commissioner Jack Mariano calls the moment "probably the longest five seconds of my life."
It was August 2005, and Mariano had been in office less than a year. Commissioner Ted Schrader made a motion to deny a contentious east Pasco development. Evans Properties, owned by a prominent citrus family, was asking to turn nearly 1,200 acres of groves near Handcart Road into a three-home-per-acre development.
Despite heavy lobbying from supporters, Mariano thought the deal would lead to "sprawl city." But he was new on the commission and afraid he and Schrader would go down in a 3-2 vote. He waited for someone else to second the motion. No one spoke up, so he finally did. Other commissioners then shared their objections. The plan died 5-0.
"There was a lot of disappointment in the room," Mariano said. Schrader's motion, he said, "changed what's going to happen in this area."
Seven years later, county officials are putting the finishing touches on an ambitious long-term strategy for a huge swath of land between Dade City and Zephyrhills. A collaboration of more than a dozen large property owners, the Villages of Pasadena Hills charts a 50-year strategy to manage growth in the area.
"We looked on a very long-term horizon," said Emmett Evans, whose family got behind the new effort after the commission's 2005 decision. "This area will be primed for something in the future. The thought was, let's go ahead and get ahead of it and plan for it in the right way."
County officials laud the effort for its smart-growth strategies and pedestrian-friendly design. The plan calls for 13 high-density "villages" where people can walk to work or school. Large open spaces would be preserved. A grid pattern for roads would cut down on traffic snarls.
Most of the area will likely stay rural for the next decade or so, waiting for the economy to improve and growth to return to Pasco. The county plans an interchange on Interstate 75 at Overpass Road to open by 2022. That will help open up the area to development.
"What we want here is to make Pasadena Hills a destination point in Pasco County," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "I know it's going to be a tough row to hoe and it's going to take 50 years to get there. But I think this, at the end of the day, will be something that everybody will be proud of."
Pasadena Hills is unique for several reasons, not least of which is its sheer size. At 22,000 acres, the area dwarfs Pasco's next-largest development, the 5,000-acre Wiregrass Ranch.
Property owners have proposed a $461 million capital plan for roads and land for parks and schools. That includes about $100 million for the highway intersection. To raise that money, the plan calls for surcharges far higher than the county's new transportation mobility fee. Developers who want the higher densities allowed in the plan would pay $14,000 in transportation fees for an average home, compared with $8,500 for the same home outside Pasadena Hills.
There is a $2,000 discount if developers opt for so-called "traditional neighborhood development," which includes alleys, homes built closer to streets and a design that encourages walking over driving. That style is required in the more dense portions of the plan.
The plan has many features of a city. Besides the higher fees, the area will also have a tax-increment financing plan. That means Pasadena Hills will keep new property taxes generated by higher values, instead of that money going to general county coffers. A proposal also calls for a special seven-person planning committee that will make planning and financial recommendations to commissioners.
"It's a subunit of local government," said Joel Tew, a lawyer for the property owners. "The whole purpose of creating this area plan was to try to do something different for the county. We all know that the bigger the beast, the harder it is to really evaluate performance."
Not everyone is thrilled with the idea. At a commission workshop last week, several residents who live in the area bemoaned the loss of open spaces and scenic views.
"I gravitated to this area because of its rural nature," said David Sumpter, who lives near the western edge of the plan's boundary. "What I see when I look at this map is the definition of urban sprawl."
Added Mary Andrews, who lives on Clinton Avenue: "The beauty of Pasco County is really in its green spaces. I watch it all disappear all the time and it breaks my heart."
Pat Gassaway, an engineer who has worked on the project for several years, said he understands the concern.
"Trying to flee the expansion of urbanization in Florida is something I hear a lot about," he said. But, he called any growth headed to the Tampa Bay area "frankly beyond all of our control."
Overall, the long-term plan calls for 42,000 homes and 500,000 square feet of office space. But Gassaway said the goal is to focus that development into dense cores to allow more than half of Pasadena Hills' 22,000 acres to remain mostly rural. That includes much of the land in the eastern portion of the map, dubbed the "countryside" area.
Even inside the villages, development is heaviest in the center and gets less intense away from the core. The proposal, Gassaway said, "is probably one of the most forward-thinking plans in the state of Florida."
Said Schrader: "There has been a great deal of effort, time and energy — and vision — put into this effort. I'm glad to see it finally come to some conclusion."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.