Pasco County and a Clearwater-based developer have reached a suitable solution to end a 2-year-old, sometimes-acrimonious land-use debate. The county will buy from the private company the 42 acres on which a controversial apartment complex had been proposed, a plan that spurred strong neighborhood opposition, multiple litigation threats and flawed governing from a County Commission majority.
Under a proposal, scheduled to be considered by commissioners Tuesday, the county would spend $3 million for land owned by Scherer Development to be used — at least initially — as preserved green space amid Riverside Estates. At some point, the county may use the land to improve storm water drainage. The only catch now is for the surrounding neighbors to agree to pony up an annual fee to offset the cost of acquiring the land for public use.
They should not hesitate. The modest yearly assessment of $125 equates to $2.50 a week for the 1,600 homeowners who will benefit from the transaction. It's an attractive deal to ensure they will have a passive park within their community rather than a proposed apartment complex that residents feared would strain local roads, exacerbate flooding and diminish property values. Scherer already has permission to build 102 apartment units on the site and in January applied for county approval to build 138 more on land that is properly zoned for multifamily use. Neighbors argued the apartment complex would be incompatible with the surrounding single-family homes.
The protracted debate saw residents from five communities organize as We Are 5333 Strong Inc., a reference to the number of registered voters in the vicinity. And, at various times, the developer's attorneys threatened a lawsuit to stifle public participation and later warned three commissioners they faced potential personal liability after refusing to approve the proposed apartments without a valid reason. That got the attention of Commissioner Jack Mariano who later (and correctly) switched his vote.
Kudos to Commissioner Kathryn Starkey who proposed the deal and to Scherer for acquiescing to the sale at a reasonable price. Starkey and Commissioners Jack Mariano, Pat Mulieri and Ted Schrader also should be commended for wisely killing Commissioner Henry Wilson's idea to waive the annual assessments for residents and just absorb the $3 million purchase out of the county's reserves. Doing so would have been irresponsible budgeting. It also would set a dangerous precedent for political expediency, effectively opening the door for others to pitch a county land purchase whenever neighbors objected to a proposed development.
The beneficiaries of this acquisition are clearly the five neighborhoods near the 42 acres, which sits a half-mile east of Little Road near the Trinity/Seven Springs area of southwest Pasco. The residential communities pre-date the current county ordinance requiring neighborhood parks in new housing developments, so the passive recreation site will be a welcome community asset. And, if the county determines the land can help alleviate drainage problems, then those same neighbors should see less standing water in their streets during heavy rainstorms.
The 15-year assessment, at little or no interest, is a fair resolution. Residents should support the plan at an upcoming public hearing and the county should complete the transaction in a timely manner.