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Residents fear Lake Thomas townhouses will drown their quality of life

Pasco commissioners give initial okay to doubling the number of houses on 42 acres in Land O’ Lakes.
The empty property is home to cattle and egrets, but neighbors fear the new occupants — owners of 218 proposed town homes near Lake Thomas in Land O' Lakes. [C.T. BOWEN | Tampa Bay Times]

LAND O’ LAKES — The empty land, fronting U.S. 41 and stretching westward toward Lake Thomas, is shared by small herd of cattle and a handful of egrets.

But it’s the potential for new occupants that has residents in the neighboring rural enclave objecting.

“You’re about to kill a golden goose,’’ said Joe Seidle who lives on Lake Thomas Road.

The golden goose, he says, is the natural beauty of Land O’ Lakes’ shorelines and old Florida neighborhoods that differentiate it from the cookie-cutter subdivisions that sit atop former ranch land elsewhere in fast-growing central Pasco.

The vacant land, nearly 42 acres, is positioned to become the site of more than 200 town homes vying for a view of Lake Thomas, the 164-acre centerpiece of serenity in the residential area that shares its name.

Current residents said they understand that development will happen. The county’s long-range land-use plan designates much of the vacant property as suitable for three single-family homes per acre., known in government vernacular as Res-3. The front parcel, along U.S. 41, can be used for a combination of offices and higher-density housing of 24 units per acre.

What residents don’t understand is why the future density for some of that land should double, as developer Tony Tanico of Eastern Meridian Property Group requested. If approved, the new zoning will allow up to six homes per acre and accommodate Tanico’s plan to put 218 town homes there.

The new development would sit amid a mix of modest mid-century, cinder-block houses, manufactured homes and custom-built executive estates the owners of which use narrow roads — minus shoulders and space for two cars to pass side-by-side — to get to U.S. 41.

Neighbors wrote emails to Pasco County, used social media, appeared before the advisory Pasco Planning Commission and last week made their concerns known to elected county commissioners.

The proposed development, they said, could cause safety hazards on U.S. 41 because town home residents will need to drive south to Ehren Cutoff and then make a u-turn to head north to reach the nearest grocery, and the elementary and high school that will serve the community. They also fear more flooding in an area susceptible to high water.

"There’s no way. I mean, we’re going to flood again,'' said Linda Amason, 63, standing outside her home at 6005 Thomas Circle.

She and her husband, Mike, 69, have lived there 33 years. Their property has flooded four times in 10 years, requiring them to gut the house, install new flooring and sheet rock and put in a new septic system.

"If we flood again, we’re pulling back and moving on,'' she said.

Tanico’s attorney, Barbara Wilhite, said the development team revised the initial plans to accommodate neighbors’ concerns. Access to the town homes will be from multi-lane U.S. 41, not narrow Little Lake Thomas Road. There will be a right-hand turn lane built on U.S. 41 to enter the project. There will be a pedestrian boardwalk, but no dock for motorized boat launches on Lake Thomas.

The state will review the drainage plans to ensure the project does not increase storm water discharge, cause flooding or damage water quality, said Joe Cimino of the civil engineering firm WRA. The plan is to retain water on the property rather than allow it to drain toward Little Lake Thomas Road and Thomas Circle, as it does now.

Related: Commission okays golf course conversion

"It doesn’t make any sense to continue discharging where there are flooding problems along those roads,'' Cimino told county commissioners.

Those accommodations, however, didn’t answer the question of why 218 town homes should be built on land designated for 100 single-family homes. Seidle called it a dangerous precedent that will open similar vacant land to double its housing capacity.

"What’s the use of having a land plan if they won’t follow it?'' Seidle asked in an interview.

The county called the proposed designation a "transitional land use and will be a means to gradually step-down in density and in lot size'' from a maximum of 24 units per acre that is available elsewhere in the vicinity.

Wilhite pointed out that higher-density housing in that location was encouraged in the 2008 Urban Land Institute report that Pasco County followed to establish higher-density urban service areas in the western and south-central portions of the county.

"This project is exactly what you said you wanted when you adopted that plan,'' she said.

"It’s not ideal for best planning,'' Commissioner Jack Mariano acknowledged about the proposed in-fill development.

But both he and Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said they were satisfied with the developer’s attempts to try to accommodate neighbors’ concerns.

The commission voted 4-0, with Commissioner Mike Moore absent, to send the proposed land-use change to the state Department of Economic Opportunity for review. Final consideration by the commission is scheduled for April 7.