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STATE SLAMS SUNWEST PLAN

Regulators say the county's ideas on density, wildlife and disaster risk all fall short.

State regulators have slammed a controversial county proposal to allow more intense development along Pasco's northern coastline, saying the move would hurt an environmentally sensitive area and put people and property at risk during a natural disaster.

The state's objections center on the 562-acre coastal area - more than half of the proposed Sunwest Harbourtowne site, where developers plan a mixed-use community that would have 2,500 homes, a golf course and a marina.

"The intrusion of dense residential and mixed land uses ... is incompatible with the protection, conservation and enhancement of (environmental) resources," the Department of Community Affairs wrote in a newly released report.

The state's objection does not kill the project, but could force Sunwest developers to revamp their plans.

After negotiating with Sunwest, Pasco County commissioners have proposed changes to the county's land use plan that would help pave the way for the project. Those changes require the blessing of state regulators.

The new state report also raises two other objections to the county's proposed changes. One is that the county did not show specifically how the Sunwest project would protect wildlife habitats, primarily for the Chassahowitzka bear. The other is that Pasco's analysis failed to show whether there is enough school capacity to accommodate students generated by the project.

But the state's most strongly worded objection is to the proposal to change what would be allowed in the 562-acre coastal area - from a very low density designation (one unit per 40 acres) to a "planned development" designation that allows for a variety of uses to occur anywhere on the site.

That coastal area consists of mostly wetlands, lakes and about 215 acres of uplands.

Much of it lies in the "velocity zone," an area known to be more prone to natural disasters, namely hurricanes.

The report says the proposed land use change runs counter to state law in two ways: It fails to limit development that could damage coastal resources, and it allows development in an area prone to natural disaster, thus failing to "protect human life and limit public expenditures in areas that are subject to destruction by natural disaster."

With the proposed land use changes, the state report says, "The county is shifting more intense development to the most vulnerable portion of the subject site which is inconsistent with state law."

Pasco officials have talked publicly about limiting what Sunwest can do within the velocity zone, saying they want the residential development in that coastal area to be aimed at seasonal residents or vacationers who would not be at risk of losing their primary homes.

But at issue is what potential the proposed designation would give the developer, said Chris Wiglesworth, a senior planner with the Department of Community Affairs.

Honey Rand, a Sunwest spokeswoman, said the owners did not get a copy of the report until late Monday and wanted a chance to review it before commenting. Richard Gehring, Pasco's top planner, did not return a phone call Monday.

In the recommendations, state regulators said the county should back off the plans to change the land use designation in the coastal area and revise its proposal "to disallow the intensification of residential and mixed uses" on the coastal portion of the property.

The next step in the process is for the county to respond to the state's objections.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

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