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Family's request for St. Leo to annex land draws objections from Pasco County

ST. LEO — For seven years, they have waged war over garbage.

Now, Pasco County leaders and the family who wants to build a controversial landfill near Dade City are sparring again, and this time the tiny town of St. Leo is in the middle of the fight.

The latest conflict involves 179 acres of agricultural land owned by the Iafrate family. On the north side of the land is St. Leo. On the south is property that is set to become the Villages of Pasadena Hills, a master-planned development of 42,000 homes and a half-million square feet of office space in the rolling hills of east Pasco. Set to run through the Iafrate property is the new State Road 52, a six-lane highway that will eventually connect to Clinton Avenue in Dade City.

In a move to bypass county rules, the Iafrates recently asked for their land — at the southwest corner of State Road 52 and Prospect Road — to become part of the town. St. Leo commissioners agreed to work with the family, even though the Iafrates have not said how the land might be developed.

The family's request, and the town's willingness to consider it, drew criticism from the county.

"The county believes that it would be best for the town of St. Leo to leave the Iafrate property within the county's jurisdiction, and allow the county to remain the steward for this land, ensuring it develops in a manner consistent with the common vision for this area established by the Pasco County comprehensive plan," County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder wrote in a Sept. 26 letter to the town.

That's the polite version. The matter has gotten ugly, with harsh words being used to describe what went on in a private sit-down with key officials from both sides.

"The meeting was not a pleasant meeting," Town Attorney Patricia Petruff told the St. Leo commission last week. "I felt insulted."

Among the concerns county officials cited were the town's ability to provide services such as roads, water, sewer, drainage, schools, libraries and parks.

St. Leo's population stands at 1,419, according to the town's website. That's about a quarter of the population of nearby Dade City. St. Leo covers 990.5 acres including the campus of Saint Leo University. Its entire tax base is about $38 million, and its budget is about $1.7 million.

The county also questioned whether the town could provide adequate oversight of the development plans, and asserted that those plans might be incompatible with Pasadena Hills, which took five years and $1 million to approve.

"The county is concerned that … the town does not have the same in-house expertise or review fees for technical review that the county has in place," Steinsnyder wrote.

A 'track record'

While the town could outsource such tasks to consultants, according to the letter, they would cost significantly more than county staff and are less likely to be sensitive to "local best practices and issues."

The attorney for the family suspects it's about more than what was stated in the letter.

"Look at the track record," said Jake Varn, an attorney who represented the Iafrates' company, Angelo's Aggregate Materials, in its yearslong appeal of the landfill permit, which the state ultimately denied and county commissioners had opposed as individuals. Shortly after Angelo's applied for a permit, the county changed its land use rules to restrict where such landfills could go, essentially ruling out Angelo's property. The state upheld the decision.

Varn suggested that St. Leo might offer a fairer shake when it comes to development of this land, which is not a potential landfill site.

"The county has gone out of its way to inflict pain on (the Iafrates.) I have yet to see any indication the county will deal with them objectively," he said.

Right of way

Varn said he suspects the county's opposition is also rooted in its desire to obtain cheap right of way for the new State Road 52. If the property is in the city limits, county officials can't demand right of way in exchange for land use approval.

Varn said his clients have no plans yet for the property but want to work with the town to come up with a mutually agreeable one. He said the county has no grounds to challenge the annexation, as the property is contiguous to the town.

Town Commissioner Donna Dewitt volunteered to be the commission's point person in developing a pre-annexation agreement, adding that the town should not be "bullied" by the county into denying the annexation without negotiating with the property owners.

"I just feel like they want it all," she said of the county.

Commissioners said accepting the land into the town limits will give St. Leo more control over its destiny as growth creeps north.

"The county paid very little attention to what the town wanted when it planned the Villages of Pasadena Hills," St. Leo Commissioner James Hallett said. "We're already at risk for dense development close to the town."

County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader denied the notion that the county is "trying to be Big Brother."

"We wanted to point out the facts," he said.

He said he was surprised when the town agree to talk with the Iafates about annexation when commissioners already are embroiled in a dispute over de-annexing some homes in Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club.

He also issued a warning to the town.

"We've all heard the sales pitch from Iafrates," he said. "They like for you to understand it their way and not the fair way."