Neighbors express skepticism over connected city concept

Published Nov. 12, 2015

WESLEY CHAPEL — The idea of a connected city is facing a disconnect with some of its neighbors.

The connected city is a newly designated special planning area in central and eastern Pasco County bordered by Interstate 75, Curley and Overpass roads and State Road 52. It is a state-authorized pilot program for developments promoting innovation via job creation, alternative transportation, limiting sprawl or protecting the environment. Proponents specifically cite the planned availability of ultra-fast Internet and related technology to spur employment opportunities.

Developments meeting these requirements largely will escape state planning reviews, and Pasco County will control future comprehensive plan amendments within the 7,800 acres. State legislation this year designated a 10-year life for the Pasco pilot program, but the build-out is not expected to be complete until 2065.

A community meeting to discuss the plan last week at Wesley Chapel Elementary School drew more than 80 people, many of whom offered pointed questions and skeptical commentary about putting thousands of new homes and the needed infrastructure on mostly vacant land. Beverly Ledbetter, a retired teacher and former state legislative candidate, also wondered about stakeholder interviews that focused on people in public office but not the public at large.

"We are indeed a stakeholder," Ledbetter said to an applauding audience.

Residents questioned who would pay to build the road network and expressed worries about the potential for short-cutting environmental safeguards and the risk of increased flooding, damage to private wells and sinkhole activity.

The planning area includes approximately 250 property owners, but much of the land is targeted for large-scale developments, including two projects by Metro Development, which is partnering with Pasco County to devise the planning strategy.

Metro's projects are the planned 2,000-home Epperson Ranch, now known as Epperson, and the former Cannon Ranch, rechristened as Mirada, which is targeted to contain 4,000 homes. The company retained Heidt Design and Associates to develop the details of the connected city concept.

Among the highlights:

• The planning area has 1,838 acres of wetlands now, with 1,660 to be preserved. Mitigation will create more than 400 additional acres of wetlands, leaving a total of 2,100.

• County standards require 126 lane miles of roads in a grid system to serve the area. Plans call for building 144 lane miles and adding 82 miles of an alternative transportation network, which would include mass transit and even golf carts.

• Financial plans have not been finalized. The neighboring Villages of Pasadena Hills planning area used tax increment financing — dedicating a portion of future property tax revenue — for its transportation needs. That option is not expected to be available for the connected city because Pasco County authorized its own countywide tax increment system in 2011 when it created its new transportation financing plan, known as mobility fees. The connected city likely would have to use an assessment or surcharge on developing property, said County Administrator Michele Baker.

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The touted attributes failed to sway many in the audience, particularly when Heidt Design's Pat Gassaway said the planning would leave Pasco County well positioned for future economic development, unlike the recent past when Amazon opted to build its 1.1 million-square-foot warehouse in southern Hillsborough County last year.

"Are we just trying for warehouses?'' Maggie Dowling asked. "I didn't see that as a lost opportunity.''

Ledbetter also questioned the validity of leaving commissioners in charge of oversight, and Gassaway acknowledged that "politics (are) not removed from the zoning process."

Campaign finance reports made public this week show Metro and affiliated companies combined to donate $2,500 to Commissioner Jack Mariano's re-election effort four days before the community meeting.

The next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Wesley Chapel Elementary. The planning strategies are scheduled to be completed by April and will be subject to public hearings and a vote by Pasco County commissioners.

Not everyone disputed the intentions. One of the area's digital pioneers, Margaret Tingley of Tingley Systems Inc. in San Antonio, offered a rare counterpoint to the skepticism.

""The whole area will be put in the spotlight," Tingley said. "This is the kind of planning that has to take place."