NEW PORT RICHEY — When Pasco County commissioners voted two weeks ago to spend millions to resolve a dispute between residents in Heritage Oaks and a developer, Commissioner Ted Schrader warned the county might be setting a precedent.
Still, commissioners backed the deal, pulling $3 million out of reserves — money set aside for emergencies — to buy 41.5 acres where developer Chris Scherer had planned a multifamily apartment complex. Many residents who worried about Scherer's project causing noise, traffic and flooding applauded the commission's decision.
The county was intervening in what was essentially a "not in my backyard" dispute, but it turns out such deals aren't unheard of, land use attorneys and public policy experts say.
"It might be somewhat infrequent, but I don't think it's unusual or inadvisable," Tampa attorney Clarke Hobby said.
To resolve the dispute, Pasco required residents in the area to pay back the funds under a structure similar to a taxing district or special assessment: Households within a half-mile of the development will pay $125 a year for 15 years until the fund is repaid.
A public hearing will be set up in June to urge residents to buy into the deal. If they don't support it, the county can back out of the purchase.
If the deal goes forward, the county will seek state funds to set up a flood-control system on the property pending engineering tests to show the idea would work.
Public policy experts say counties and cities statewide are turning to taxing districts, land swaps and special assessments more frequently. The approach gained popularity during the recession because governments could generate revenue to address problems without resorting to tax hikes.
Sometimes governments turn to land swaps or ask third parties, such as the Nature Conservancy, to buy land until they can raise money through taxes, bond issues or federal or state grants.
Governments have long established taxing districts or special assessments to pay for parks and libraries and to pave roads.
"With fiscal constraints in place it certainly is an option open to them," said Evangeline Linkous, an assistant professor of urban regional planning at the University of South Florida.
Likewise, longtime land-use attorney Ron Weaver of Tampa called Pasco's special assessment option a "creative solution" by officials.
Schrader said he still wasn't entirely sold on the idea, though. The commissioner had reservations but voted for the deal because it requires residents to repay the fund. Also, it came with the understanding the land eventually will be set aside for flood control, so it will have a public purpose.
Had he been asked to spend tax dollars resolving a dispute between a developer and residents, he wouldn't have voted for it, he said.
Still, Schrader questions the prudence of pulling money from a fund set aside for emergencies. Looking ahead, he suggested commissioners set up a separate fund, and not use reserves, if they decide to help more communities.
Hobby said he doesn't fault the commission for borrowing money to help Heritage Oaks.
"I could see where the public might not understand, that at first glance it appears the county is buying land just to acquiesce to angry neighbors in a NIMBY mode. But in this case the residents will pay back the funds," he said. "This is somewhat unusual, but also it's forward-thinking for county staff and board members to do."
He also said it's unlikely the county will face this same problem again soon. The project was strongly opposed by residents, but it had met all of the planning and zoning requirements to move forward.
"There's no legal way to deny someone like that," he said. "It's been a long time since I've seen the kind of gyrations occur that occurred over that special deal. This is not going to come before them that often."
Rich Shopes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.