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Home construction breaks county record

In a surprise to no one who has endured rush hour traffic or tried to buy a three-bedroom house for under $150,000, Pasco County smashed its own new home construction record in 2004.

Pasco issued permits for 6,300 single-family homes in 2004, according to the county's Central Permitting Office. Before last year, the highest totals were 5,883 in 2003 and 4,826 in 1978.

Single family homes were just the start of the story. Duplexes, townhomes and apartments added another 1,925 housing units to the growth totals, mobile homes another 784.

What's driving the surge is the availability of buildable land in a 25-mile suburban belt from Trinity in the west to Zephyrhills in the east. Traffic willing, it's an easy commuting distance to Tampa and Clearwater.

If you're relocating from outside the state or within the Tampa Bay area, most roads point to Pasco. Low interest rates made houses, based on monthly mortgage payments, seem less expensive. Land is less expensive here than in most parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Pasco's big growth neighborhoods include Meadow Pointe and Seven Oaks in Wesley Chapel, Suncoast Meadows in Land O'Lakes and the myriad neighborhoods that make up Trinity.

No longer a retiree haven, Pasco attracts mostly younger families with children. Just ask Mike Rapp, the county school district's development director.

The latest enrollment shows 57,055 students attending the county's 55 schools. That's a jump of about 3,100 students in one year, a record.

"We've got 3,000 more running around the halls today than we had a year ago," Rapp said. "The projection for next year is again over 3,000."

In terms of new construction, the school district will barely be able to contain the growth. It's opening just two elementaries this year, though things improve with a rush of school construction in time for 2006.

The numbers of homes and students aren't the only things exploding. So are housing prices.

Late last year, new home prices in Pasco averaged about $220,000, up from $150,000 in 2001. Some national housing analysts expect home appreciation to slow _ there's even talk of real estate bubbles bursting.

Although the Tampa Bay area seems largely immune, opinions are mixed on whether Pasco home values will continue to gain about 10 percent a year. When home prices start outstripping incomes, higher prices are harder to sustain. Rising interest rates are another wild card.

For the coming year, among the most eagerly awaited new communities is Connerton, ultimately as many as 8,700 homes east of U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes. The first model homes are under construction in Connerton's first "village."

"Even if the County Commission put a moratorium on building permits, there's enough homes approved to keep them building for years out there," Rapp said.

PERMITS ISSUED

The number of permits for single-family homes that Pasco County issued in the last five years:

2004: 6,300

2003: 5,883

2002: 4,786

2001: 3,859

2000: 2,931

Source: Pasco County Central Permitting Office

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