A proposed multi-million dollar makeover at State Road 52 and Interstate 75 has finally been given the green light after Pasco County and a developer have agreed to settle a four-year legal battle.
Pasco commissioners approved the $4.7 million settlement with developer Hillcrest Property in late December, ending the skirmish in which Hillcrest accused Pasco of making a land grab.
The Department of Transportation removed the final hurdle to the work on Jan. 31, when it closed on a land deal with Hillcrest.
The improvements at I-75 and SR 52 are part of a $71.3 million widening of the interstate between County Road 54 and State Road 52. The DOT needed the land from Hillcrest — about 3.2 acres — in order to improve the interchange. The work is supposed to start after Memorial Day.
"None of us warmly embraced the idea of the settlement, but the consequences of going to court, with the potential of liability being much greater, we're just glad to have it behind us so they can go ahead with the improvements," said Pasco Commissioner Ted Schrader, whose district includes the interchange.
The DOT says the tussle between Pasco and Hillcrest never endangered the project or delayed it. Nonetheless, the dispute was still raging when the DOT signed a deal with Prince Contracting on Nov. 18 to widen the interstate to six lanes north of CR 54 and improve the SR 52 ramps.
The dispute over land started in 2010. Hillcrest sued Pasco in April of that year after the county invoked its Right of Way Corridor Preservation ordinance, which forces landowners to surrender property for future roads if they want to develop their land.
At issue was a proposed 16-acre commercial site off Old Pasco Road west of I-75 that Hillcrest wanted to develop into a shopping center. Officials invoked the ordinance to bank a 100-foot strip — about 3.2 acres — for future roads at the site, but Hillcrest sued, alleging the ordinance was unconstitutional.
In April 2013, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday sided with Hillcrest. Pasco was in the midst of appealing that ruling when it offered to settle with Hillcrest in October, offering the developer $1.35 million, not including payments by the DOT.
But the deal approved in December and subsequently backed by the DOT increases the county's share to $1.5 million. The DOT's share for the land is $3.2 million.
"I'm not happy, but it's the best we could do," Pasco Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said of the deal. "It's better we could settle it and move on."
The interchange work is expected to last through mid-2017.
Among other changes, the bridges over SR 52 will be replaced and a new on-ramp will be added for motorists heading south on the interstate.
Drivers traveling west will be able to access the ramp from the right side instead having to move into the left lane and wait at a traffic signal before getting on the interstate.
The project also calls for frontage roads on the north and south sides of SR 52 west of the interstate, bicycle lanes in both directions, and new sidewalks and traffic signals.
Rich Shopes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.