NEW PORT RICHEY — Two residential builders that agreed to foot the bill for a four-lane road critical to attracting financial giant T. Rowe Price to Pasco backed off a commitment to build a stretch of Sunlake Boulevard, leaving the county holding the bag.
Beazer and M/I homes had agreed to pay for the southern leg of the road, which fronts Long Lake Ranch and connects State Road 54 to Hillsborough County. But they recently told county officials they could not afford to honor that pledge.
"This road is important to T. Rowe Price," Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein said. He said some other projects might have to be delayed as a result. A shopping center developer, Amprop, has agreed to put up the money it promised.
The road is key in luring the firm, which promises to bring 1,600 high-wage jobs to Pasco. It also won $30 million in state and county incentives to construct a three-building, 450,000-square-foot office complex at SR 54 and Sunlake. Pasco, which is competing against four other states for T. Rowe, is the only Florida site under consideration. The firm's offices now are in Hillsborough County, but that location won't allow it to expand when its lease expires in 2012.
Goldstein said the county's agreement with T. Rowe Price required the road to be built, and if the builders defaulted, it would step in.
County engineer Jim Widman estimated costs at $5.1 million for the first two lanes — which must be built by 2010 — and $3.25 million for the third and fourth lanes, which must be built by 2015. The county would place a lien on property along the road and levy a special assessment so it could recoup money when the property is developed later. A special act by the Legislature gave the county the authority to do this, Goldstein said.
Commissioners expressed disappointment but voted unanimously to schedule a public hearing for May 12.
"This is an example of us doing what we say we're going to do," Commissioner Michael Cox said.
This marks the latest challenge in the county's efforts to land T. Rowe Price. The environmental group Citizens for Sanity has challenged a decision by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, to grant a wetlands permit at the site.
In other business, commissioners:
• Listened to a drought update from officials from Tampa Bay Water and Swiftmud. Both said the drought was critical but the area was much more prepared to deal with water shortages than in the mid 1990s. Swiftmud has urged Tampa Bay Water member governments to consider a drought surcharge or increase rates for heavy users. Commissioners took no action.
• Voted 4-1 as the Local Planning Agency to allow a five-acre parcel at the former Tampa Bay Executive Airport in Trinity to be rezoned from light industrial to commercial. Staff had recommended that the request be denied, saying it would further erode the county's ability to provide employment centers. But representatives for the developers said that entitlements were merely being moved around on the property. The commission must take a final vote for the move to be official. Commissioner Ted Schrader dissented.
• Overturned a Planning Commission vote to deny a request for a cat rescue operation on Abaco Court. The owner, Rae Ann Saks, had 70 cats on the small lot. After hearing concerns from two neighbors, planning commissioners denied the request. But Saks appealed, and other neighbors and officials with animal welfare organizations such as the Humane Society sent letters of support. Commissioners approved the rescue operation but set a limit of 50 cats.
• Approved a resolution honoring Growth Management Administrator Sam Steffey, who is retiring at the end of this month after 31 years. Steffey, who began as a planner, helped write the county's initial comprehensive plan in the 1980s. County officials hired Richard E. Gehring, a former Pinellas administrator and private developer, to replace Steffey.