For decades, an accurate description of Pasco County and its diverse populace always included a geographic barrier. U.S. 41, people would say, might as well be a brick wall between east and west.
Dade City was the old South. Zephyrhills attracted Northern retirees favoring mobile home living. West Pasco had coastal attributes, a few pockets of old-timers and bland subdivisions with street after street of retirees filling affordable two-bedroom homes. As for central Pasco? Well, it was a mix of rural homesteads, old orange groves and new subdivisions trying to market themselves as Tampa's next bedroom communities.
Well, a funny thing happened. After consecutive decades of population growth centered in the middle of the county, the U.S. 41 brick wall is poised to become a portal to political influence.
Under redrawn district maps for Pasco's commission and School Board seats, Land O'Lakes will have three resident commissioners and a fourth hovering just north of Gowers Corner. All four districts will include portions of U.S. 41, the main north-south route in the center of the county.
The changes are based on the 2010 Census and a need to distribute representation of the 120,000 new residents who moved to Pasco County since 2000. Central Pasco's District 2, represented by Commissioner Pat Mulieri and School Board member Joann Hurley, more than doubled in population over the past decade to nearly 140,000 people.
The proposed district boundaries are still subject to a Sept. 20 commission hearing and vote, but the preferred map shows State Road 54 and portions of U.S. 41 as the border for commission districts now represented by Mulieri of Gowers Corner and Ann Hildebrand and Henry Wilson, both of unincorporated New Port Richey .
Think of being a pedestrian at the intersection of U.S. 41 and SR 54. Stand on the northwest corner by the lumber yard and you are in Wilson's District 4. Walk east across U.S. 41 (also known as Land O'Lakes Boulevard) to the 7-Eleven store and you are in Mulieri's District 2. Meander across SR 54 to the CVS pharmacy at the southeast corner and your resident commissioner is Hildebrand because you are now in District 3. Head north on U.S. 41 roughly 2 miles past the State Road 52 intersection — near the point where the CSX railroad tracks cross the highway — and you are now in District 1 represented by Commissioner Ted Schrader.
In other words, central Pasco could now elect four residents to the Pasco County Commission and/or School Board under the proposed maps.
Wesley Chapel, similarly, will see its resident commissioners double with Hildebrand's District 3 stretching along the SR 54 corridor from U.S. 19 to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Mulieri's district encompasses the rest. Eight years ago, some Wesley Chapel residents proposed their own municipality, in part, because nobody from the burgeoning community was on the commission and people felt under-represented. Now, someone from both the Northwood and Meadow Pointe neighborhoods abutting County Line Road could be elected to the commission because they are in different districts.
We should point out that commission and School Board elections are countywide contests, but officeholders must live within the district they represent. The maps are drawing mixed responses.
"No, I don't like it,'' said Sandra Graves of Land O'Lakes, an active Republican working toward the renovation of the Land O'Lakes Community Center and creating an amphitheater at the adjoining Heritage Park. "I feel like central Pasco is one entity. I always feel like the west side and the east side had their pickings and left us and now they've divided us.''
"I don't know that cutting at U.S. 41 is a good idea,'' said Jim Flateau, chairman of the Ballantrae Community Development District. "It bisects Land O'Lakes. I don't know that chopping up the area is a good idea.''
Under the proposed boundaries, Flateau's neighborhood moves from District 2 to District 4 .
"Given the options they had to look at, it's probably the best of the four (proposed maps.) From the Ballantrae point of view, I would rather have seen us in a central Pasco district rather than one so tilted to New Port Richey. But, I can see why they did it and you can't be that parochial about it.''
Consider a little historical perspective. After the 1990 census, many political interests lobbied for Pasco to have its own resident state senator, but that didn't happen for another 10 years. In the 1990s, the county was divided among three senate districts eventually represented by Jack Latvala, Ginny Brown-Waite and John Grant, all Republicans from neighboring counties.
Rather than shortchanging Pasco, their leadership on some of the most pressing matters of the day — underground water pumping, environmental preservation, infrastructure — resulted in expanded highways, a dredged Hudson channel, the Werner-Boyce State Park, and, most importantly, a new regional water utility that curbed its reliance on ground water and reversed past damage to lakes and wetlands.
Central Pasco residents should think of these redrawn commission districts as a similar opportunity. Having a single, resident office-holder might have parochial appeal, but when it comes to getting things done, remember a familiar adage — the more the merrier.