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Timber Oaks residents cry foul over golf course drainage plan

PORT RICHEY — Seventy-year-old Larry Dahlquist bought his home in the Timber Oaks neighborhood in 2006 and moved there permanently from Minnesota six years later, attracted by the peace and quiet of the 55-and-older community, and by his home's location away from the golf course. He is not a golfer.

The peace and quiet, however, has been interrupted by an ongoing legal battle over — what else? — the golf course.

Dahlquist is president of the homeowners association for Spanish Gate Village, a 72-home enclave within Timber Oaks that has its own community pool surrounded by single-family homes and duplexes, all topped by rust-colored Spanish-tile roofs. It's just a few tidy streets sitting northwest of what used to be the fifth hole on the 18-hole course. Their homes are separated from the course by a hill.

The course shut down in 2006, and a developer's idea to turn the vacant 78 acres into 230 family home sites died two years ago after the Pasco County Commission rejected the plan from golf course owner Pacer LC. The unanimous commission vote came amid concerns over extra traffic atop deteriorating roads, housing marketed to young families in an community earmarked for seniors, and flooding.

Particularly the flooding. The 2,000-home community, bordered by State Road 52, Little Road and Jasmine Boulevard, sits in what is known as a closed basin. Water that comes in doesn't necessarily have an easy way out. The tropical storms of 2004 overwhelmed the area, and to keep water from flooding houses, the county and neighborhood pumped water from Footprint Lake, near the clubhouse at the southern edge of the community, to Dollar Lake, a body of water atop a sinkhole close to the north end of the development.

Pacer sued the county over the denied rezoning, but agreed to a settlement last summer in which the county would buy the defunct golf course for $2.4 million and build retention ponds to solve the area's drainage problems.

At the time, a news account in the Tampa Bay Times characterized the settlement as the end of an eight-year saga. It turned out to be a premature pronouncement.

Dahlquist and his neighbors in Spanish Gate Village sued the county in March after commissioners approved a new municipal service benefit unit to assess the property owners for a share of the drainage work. The projected cost is a $112-per-home annual assessment for 20 years.

The total cost of the project could reach $7 million, but the county is seeking financial help from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the state Legislature. That isn't a certainty, however. Residents asked the water district governing board to hold off on the funding, and the hoped-for state grant of $2.4 million to cover the golf course purchase is in limbo amid the budget stalemate in Tallahassee.

Separate from the lawsuit, the Spanish Gate homeowners have expressed concerns that the drainage work will harm the environment and residents by pumping water — collected from ponds built amid a pesticide- and herbicide-laden former golf course — to Dollar Lake, where water could drain unimpeded through the sinkhole into the aquifer.

The county acknowledges that pumping to Dollar Lake should not be part of the long-term solution.

"The residents have taken it upon themselves to install a small pump system that moves excess water to an active sinkhole off the property,'' the county wrote to state legislators in seeking the $2.4 million grant. "Again, while helpful, it is inadequate and potentially causes water quality issues in the aquifer due to the introduction of untreated stormwater runoff.''

Removing contaminated soil to build the ponds should be an asset, said Commissioner Jack Mariano, whose district includes the neighborhood.

"Any contaminates in the area of those ponds, the soil is just taken away,'' said Mariano. "They won't be leaving contaminates in the pond. The more (dirt) they take out, the better it should be.''

The complaint from Spanish Gate makes no mention of environmental concerns, Dahlquist said, because neighbors were unaware of the potential contamination when they filed the lawsuit.

Right now, the issue is strictly financial. The suit contends that Spanish Gate homeowners receive no special benefit from the assessment-funded drainage work because storm water threatens homes to the south, not their properties. Likewise, neighbors argue, emergency routes taking Spanish Gate residents out of the neighborhood do not flood, so evacuation access is not an issue.

"There is nothing to do with elevation; it's just where they decided to draw the lines,'' said Dahlquist. "They gerrymandered the (MSBU) boundaries, as far as I'm concerned.''

The county's response points out that since residents purchased homes in Spanish Gate Village, subject to Timber Oaks' deed restrictions and assessments for common-area upkeep, the homeowners waived their rights to object to an MSBU assessment that also benefits the common areas of the neighborhood.

Timber Oaks, said Mariano, "is one community altogether. If you try to isolate and break it down one by one by one, it's not gong to work. This does improve everybody's (property) value throughout the community.''

Dahlquist said he would rather have seen the golf course become a nursery, producing ornamental plants for landscaping. If the drainage work must be done, he said, the preferred alternative would be to ensure that no water collected in the newly built ponds is pumped to Dollar Lake's sinkhole.

Still, he finds the motivation suspect.

"We're the sacrificial lambs,'' he said, "to settle the Pacer lawsuit.''