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The Preserve developers still await final word

As far as developers of The Preserve at Lake Thomas are concerned, the zoning process has been one fiasco after another.

Loren Worley and Bob Pinson, partners in a venture to build 54 homes with access to the 164-acre lake, first pitched their plan to Pasco County officials in May.

More than five months later, the development remains on hold.

It can take as little as two months to go from the Development Review Committee to the Planning Commission to the County Commission, but development officials say there's no pat answer for how long the process should take.

But at least one county commissioner agrees that it took far too long to handle The Preserve.

"We've followed the process all along and we've been slaughtered," Pinson told the Times.

On Tuesday, county commissioners are expected to finally settle the matter. They held a public hearing two weeks ago, but a technical error required the issue to come up again for clarification.

Robert Schumaker, one of two Tampa attorneys representing Lake Thomas residents, has asked commissioners to refuse further input.

But Tim Hayes, the Land O'Lakes attorney who represents the developers, wants time during Tuesday's meeting in New Port Richey to talk about problems with the zoning process, and with allegations made by Lake Thomas residents.

What problems?

These problems:

County staff took too long to review and respond to plans for The Preserve. A developer usually gets one delay; the planning department took several to get its act together. That doesn't violate any regulations, but it slows the development.

County Commissioner Bonnie Zimmer, who represents Land O'Lakes, ordered a meeting delay so opponents of the development could attend. The entire board should have voted on the delay.

Lawyers for residents along Lake Thomas opposed to lake access for The Preserve alleged that the Southwest Florida Water Management District had determined Lake Thomas was environmentally stressed.

That's true, but Swiftmud meant the Lake Thomas in Hillsborough County. The developer's expert found, and Swiftmud agrees, that the central Pasco lake has remained virtually unchanged and relatively healthy for the past 30 years.

Then, last month, came the kicker: The botched Zimmer motion.

Zimmer moved to approve The Preserve, without a controversial boat ramp, and asked the developers to move a planned lakeside park inland or prohibit lake access. Commission Chairman Ann Hildebrand repeated the motion, but changed or to and.

The board then voted unanimously to approve the nebulous motion.

Meanwhile, with no controversy, commissioners already have considered and approved two other developments in the area, plans for which came after The Preserve.

One, a 50-home project adjacent to Lake Padgett Estates, is similar to The Preserve. The other, Palm Lake Estates, could eventually put as many as 900 homes along U.S. 41, south of the county jail. Palm Lake, interestingly enough, was passed Tuesday as an item on the consent agenda, with no discussion.

"They have reason to be frustrated," Hildebrand said of the developers. "I did not want to see this drag on and on. It's only fair that the developer be allowed to get on with doing business. It's dragged on at the expense of the developer.

"None of these delays were requested by the developer. They were sought by staff, and Commissioner Zimmer when she wanted the meeting to be done at night time."

Zimmer, who leaves office next month, declined to comment about the Lake Thomas situation: "I really just can't say anything about it at all."

Lake Thomas residents have made it clear they don't oppose The Preserve, just lake access for all 54 homes. They seem to support, as did the commissioners, allowing boat ramps for residents of the six shoreline homes, but forbidding it for other homeowners in the development.

They argued that giving everyone in The Preserve lake access would set an unfortunate precedent.

That, Pinson said, is hypocritical and incorrect. The precedent, he said, already has been set.

The county's tax maps show that four parcels along the south shore of Lake Thomas have been subdivided in much the same way that Pinson and Worley want to divvy up land on the east shore for The Preserve. On the south shore, however, residents who don't actually live on the lake are allowed to use it.

"All we're saying is we want what these others who live on Lake Thomas have got," Hayes said.

The boat ramp is history, he said. He won't ask for it again. But he does want a park with a dirt trail leading to the shore so all Preserve residents can use the lake.

However, his argument may be moot.

The oldest south shore subdivision was established in 1958. But the county hasn't allowed any such subdivisions on Lake Thomas since it initiated its zoning process in 1978. Pasco didn't even have zoning laws until 1976.

Just because people did it that way 36 years ago doesn't make it right today, Hildebrand said.

"I feel that everybody needs to be treated equitably, but we're not in 1958. We're in 1994," she said.

Dave Cox, a real estate agent who lives on Lake Thomas, is trying to sell a $21,000 piece of property on Shell Road that boasts lake access as a feature. He signed a petition opposing access for all Preserve residents except those who live on the lake.

"That's not a legitimate leg for them to stand on," Cox said. "The county probably quit running these developments through because they realized it was a mistake. If my neighbor wanted to do the same thing today, I'd be raising Sam tomorrow. We're not singling this developer out. We hope they build something beautiful. It would be nice for the area.

"All we want is to let them build six houses on the lake and the rest can stay out. That's the bottom line."

Hayes said he thinks he's got solid grounds to sue Pasco County over the morass of problems that have plagued his client.

Meanwhile, the development awaits. Windjammer Homes has been signed to construct houses in The Preserve. Pinson and Worley would rather keep it out of court.

But they won't have much of a choice, Hayes said, if they can't have their say Tuesday.

Although Hildebrand at first seemed opposed to further public comment when interviewed by the Times, she changed her mind when the topic of litigation arose.

"What I feel is practical is, if it pleases the board, we should allow the developer and the opposition to each make a five-minute presentation, and then the board votes on that," she said. "I feel that's appropriate."

If the board approves further discussion, however, don't expect a dramatic change in the commissioners' views.

When the board voted last time, its members already knew that the wrong lake had been cited and that some Lake Thomas residents opposing lake access for The Preserve didn't live on the lake, but themselves had access.

"The way I see it," Hildebrand said, "this is just coming up as a matter of clarification."