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Plan for connected city would unplug existing land-use reviews

Published Jun. 16, 2016

DADE CITY — Pasco's Development Review Committee is being asked to vote itself out of existence when it comes to overseeing the proposed 7,800-acre connected city corridor in central and east Pasco.

Under a proposed county ordinance, recommendations to county commissioners on pending land-use issues would come not from existing advisory bodies, but from a newly created developer-heavy management committee. It excises the Development Review Committee (top county staff members under the direction of County Administrator Michele Baker) and the Planning Commission (appointed residents) from deliberating zoning changes, comprehensive plan amendments and other land-use issues within the special planning area that is bordered by Interstate 75, Curley and Overpass roads and State Road 52.

The DRC is scheduled to consider the proposed connected city corridor ordinance July 25 in Dade City. Removing the advisory boards is intended to expedite future development approvals. But it is raising eyebrows outside the corridor area as a potential way to stifle public input and to give connected city developers an advantage over competitors.

"I think it's wrong to cut these other bodies out of these decisions,'' said Planning Commission member Dennis Smith of Wesley Chapel. "You're cutting citizen input out of the process.''

"If we start setting up special little places where they can do whatever they want to do, how can we in the rest of the county have any input?'' asked Calvin Branche of Hudson, vice chairman of the Planning Commission.

The connected city corridor, a state-authorized 10-year pilot program, is proposed to be the nation's first smart gigabit community built from the ground up. Under the 2015 state law creating it, the area is deemed to have met state concurrency requirements if county commissioners approve a long-range transportation network and a financial plan to pay for $322 million worth of roads, school land and other required infrastructure to serve a projected 96,000 residents.

Under the current plan, it would be financed by new development fees and surcharges on top of existing impact fees on new construction within the corridor.

Much of the land within the planning area already is targeted for residential development, including Metro Development's 2,000-home Epperson Ranch South, Epco Ranch North, Ashley Groves and the former Cannon Ranch, now known as Mirada, which will include 4,000 homes.

Under an early version of the proposed ordinance, the area would be considered a so-called stewardship district with final oversight residing with county commissioners, but land use recommendations would come from the seven-person management committee. It would consist of the District 1 county commissioner and a county administrative staffer, three people nominated by Metro Development or other approved projects in the corridor, one property owner within the district but not affiliated with those developments, and an appointee of the Pasco Economic Development Council.

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The Pasco School District doesn't like the possibility of losing its seat at the table.

"Pasco County Schools remain concerned with a management committee replacing the Development Review Committee and the Planning Commission,'' Chris Williams, the district planning director, said in an April 15 letter to the county planning staff.

The school district currently is assigned a seat on both the DRC and the Planning Commission and, "as such, any committee serving as a replacement to these should have a school district representative,'' Williams said.

His request initially went unheeded. Metro Development, however, said via an email relayed through its public relations firm that it agreed the school district ''should be part of the seven-person management committee and it is something that is currently in the process of being done.''

Williams said Monday the school district could be joining the seven-person committee instead of the Pasco EDC.

The importance of school district input cannot be discounted. Williams, in his letter to the county, said the connected city's draft financial plan underestimated the number of classrooms needed to serve the area and the amount of land required to support the school facilities. The plan relied on countywide student population statistics instead of higher student enrollment projections typical of fast-growing Wesley Chapel.

The planning area's revised financial plan, released last week, increased the number of schools from eight to 12 and the needed land to 441 acres, up from 260. Oddly, though, the projected cost for buying land for schools remained the same at $18.2 million because the updated financial plan dropped the per-acre buying price from $70,000 to $41,300.

Metro countered that Pasco County's current impact fee analysis shows per-acre land costs for schools at $35,960.

"Those numbers are meaningless, and I can assure you they are too low,'' said deputy superintendent of schools Ray Gadd.

While a school district seat on the management committee hasn't been finalized, Metro Development and its team of planners and legal counsel are zeroing in on their choice of the county commissioner they want on the committee.

In late March, that was Debbie Wells, the former wife of retiring Property Appraiser Mike Wells Sr. She is one of three Republican candidates seeking the District 1 commission seat being vacated by Ted Schrader. Through May 1, her campaign received a total of $12,500 from Metro Development and its affiliated companies; Heidt Design, its officers and employees; attorney Joel Tew's law firm, and traffic engineers Lincks and Associates.

Wells, who had a 25-year career in home-building marketing and sales, said Heidt Design president Pat Gassaway offered to be host to a campaign fundraiser after she asked for a briefing on the high-tech aspects of the connected city corridor.

"My cards are on the table, and they're all straight up,'' said Wells.

She said she was unaware of the management committee's proposed advisory role to the commission, nor that the resident commissioner — her, if she wins the GOP primary and general election in November — would be serving on the panel.

Metro, however, apparently is hedging its bets. On May 16, Metro and four affiliated companies contributed a total of $5,000 to one of Wells' Republican rivals, Ronald Oakley.

"Metro believes in a fair playing field for all development in the county, and it expects nothing in return for its contributions,'' the company said in its email. "It's important to note that Metro's contributions were consistent across the board, and any contributions made by its partners and outside consultants would be made independently from Metro.''

Oakley said he knew of the proposed management committee, but did not know the District 1 commissioner would be a member. He said he had heard concerns that the connected city corridor could be getting preferential treatment, considering that proposed developments elsewhere in the county still would have to pass muster with the DRC.

"I want it to be right for all of Pasco County,'' Oakley said. "I don't want it to be unfavorable to anybody in Pasco County, and that includes other developers.''

The political benevolence from connected city interests extends beyond District 1. The same contributors who wrote checks to Wells' campaign have been equally generous to all sitting commissioners facing election contests in 2016. Commissioner Jack Mariano received a total of $11,500 and Kathryn Starkey $10,500 toward their re-election campaigns. Schrader, who is running for the open property appraiser's seat, received $12,500.

Commissioners are scheduled to consider the connected city financial plan, transportation network and enacting ordinances on Aug. 9, three weeks before the primary election.

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