DADE CITY — Pasco's signature plan to encourage growth in urban areas could face a legal challenge after county commissioners on Tuesday voted to restrict the amount of traffic in rural areas.
Tuesday's changes concern how much traffic a new development can add to a road before the developer must improve or expand the road. Those so-called service levels are graded on an A through F scale, similar to school grades.
Commissioners voted 3-2 to limit most rural roads to a C grade. All roads in the county are currently limited to a D, but officials plan to start allowing different grades for different areas in the county.
The urban western and southern swaths of Pasco would have the worst traffic, with most roads degrading to an E grade or worse. Rural roads would be the most free flowing, and suburban roads would be somewhere in between.
But having lighter rural traffic means higher costs for road improvements. That could make it less profitable to develop in rural areas.
And it could violate an earlier promise made by the county, according to Clarke Hobby, a lawyer who represents many large landowners in northeast Pasco.
"What you would be adopting is a plan to stop all growth," he said. "It's going to create significant problems for our clients in having any reasonable use of their property."
Hobby said the changes violate a 2006 legal agreement that would provide for a "reasonable level of growth" in the rural areas. He said that agreement allowed for roughly 2,400 units over 60,000 acres.
After commissioners voted for the new traffic standards, Hobby said he looks forward to working with the county, though possibly in an "administrative hearing."
That could be a reference to a lawsuit against the "mobility fee" that charges higher transportation fees in rural areas and exempts fees for office and industrial developments, as well as development in planned transit hubs.
Pasco is one of the first counties in Florida to adopt such a plan, and officials say it could be a major tool to combat urban sprawl.
Asked later if his clients would challenge the new fee, Hobby said he didn't want to comment further on "pending litigation." In October, Hobby sent a letter to county staffers with a litany of complaints about the mobility fee, arguing it unfairly penalized rural landowners.
The new traffic standards were pushed by a northeast Pasco citizens group focused on preserving the rural character of the area. Its members noted that most rural roads now operate with relatively little traffic disruption, roughly a B grade.
With a tougher traffic standard, "the initial costs of roads to bring in the development may deter them from building," said Trilby resident Richard Riley, an organizer of the group.
Added Dade City resident Nancy Hazelwood: "The large landowners and the people that work for them have their own opinions. They are in the land business to make money."
Commissioner Pat Mulieri said a C grade — with a D grade exception on nine rural roads — was a compromise that could allow Hobby's clients to develop the 2,400 planned units.
Added Commissioner Jack Mariano: "What are people going to think when it gets to a D?"
But Commissioner Ted Schrader, who was on the short end of the vote with Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, argued strenuously against the changes. He said the rural area has been functioning fine at a D grade for years — even when the Lykes Pasco plant and the Evans citrus processing plant were still operating.
"I just don't want to jeopardize all the good work that's gone into the mobility fee over something that shouldn't be an issue," he said.
Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein said the exceptions to the new road standards should assuage Hobby's concerns. Developers also have three years to opt out of the new system and stick with the old transportation impact fee rules.
"If they didn't like what we were doing, we gave them a three-year window to say, 'I like what you did before better,'" he said.