DADE CITY — There is nothing grand about Grande Oaks, according to St. Leo town officials.
Or is there?
"We are proud of this plan,'' lawyer Barbara Wilhite said about the development proposal more than four years in the making.
The dichotomy of opinions came last week before the Pasco County Commission in Dade City.
Wilhite represents the Iafrate family which wants to turn 175 acres of rolling pasture into Grande Oakes, a development of 600 homes and 400,000-square-feet of commercial activity immediately east of the St. Leo town boundary. The proposed stores and offices are to be clustered in a town center, a quarter-mile south of the intersection of State Road 52 and Prospect Road.
The vicinity is ripe for growth because of the looming multi-lane construction and rerouting of State Road 52, directly through the Iafrete property, connecting to Clinton Avenue in Dade City.
At one time, the Iafrates considered annexing the land into the town, a strategy that was dropped a half-dozen years ago as the town dealt with the separate issue of contraction by the Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club.
Ironically, county officials expressed concern at the time about the Iafrates’ push for annexation into the town, arguing that St. Leo didn’t have the wherewithal to provide adequate planning, infrastructure and services for the development.
The concern now comes from the town about scenic vistas, topography and intensive development failing to account for the rolling hills of east Pasco.
In a twist, town officials last week did not oppose amending the county comprehensive land plan to allow the development. It signaled they welcomed development, if done correctly.
Their objections, instead, centered on rezoning the agricultural land. They contend the lack of visual protections for neighboring property owners violated the comprehensive plan that the commission had just amended.
"That’s why we are opposing this rezoning. We don’t think the transitions are appropriate or adequate,'' said Town Attorney Patricia Petruff.
The county should require the property owner to provide better transitions between rural St. Leo and the planned development, including larger buffers and enhanced landscaping, she said.
Wilhite and the project’s land planner, Matt Armstrong of Stantec, said the development would be less dense than what is allowed in the Village of Pasadena Hills, the largely undeveloped 22,000-acre planning district south and east of the Iafrate land.
The Grande Oaks project would include larger-than-required buffers that will be deeded as a homeowners’ association parcel. And Armstrong said that existing mature oak and pine trees would provide a visual screen.
Still, Petroff repeated the same fears town officials offered during a May public hearing before the appointed Pasco Planning Commission — that the development could make St. Leo resemble Clermont in Lake County where hilltop citrus groves gave way to homes and commercial development along U.S. Highway 27 and State Road 50.
''It just looks like little Chiclets on a hill because every piece of vegetation has been taken down'' and replaced by housing, said Petroff.
Commissioners, however, weren’t convinced and voted 4-0, with Commissioner Mike Wells absent, to approve the rezoning. Commissioner Mike Moore said the town should have completed the annexation if it wanted to control growth on the property. And Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said the SaintLeo University campus meant intensive development already exists within the town.
"We’ve been consistent with our opposition,'' St. Leo Mayor Richard Christmas said afterward, "and they’ve been pretty consistent with railroading the opposition.''