Thirteen months ago, the Pasco County Commission created a Hudson golf-cart community, designating 57 streets west of U.S. 19 and south of Hudson Beach as suitable for golf cart travel.
“I feel good about it,” Commissioner Jack Mariano, whose district includes the area, told the rest of the commission.
Mariano also told the board he wouldn’t be voting on the matter “in an abundance of caution.”
Contained within the newly designated golf cart community is the vacant land at the end of Sea Ranch Drive, purchased two years earlier by Mariano and business partners, known as Sunset Phase 4. The parcel is zoned for the development of condominiums facing the Gulf of Mexico.
“I’m not sure if it’s truly a conflict,” County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder told commissioners during that Feb. 18, 2020, meeting, “but the statute allows you to recuse yourself if it even appears to be a conflict and the commissioner has chosen that.”
Mariano chose to do something else the following month. He listed the property for sale for $5.9 million, two years after acquiring it for $900,000.
That golf cart community designation is now part of an ongoing federal investigation that witnesses have said is focused on Mariano, the land purchase and a separate issue of disbursement of an anonymous $600,000 donation to complete a county-owned park. Witnesses told the Tampa Bay Times in November they had been interviewed by FBI and IRS agents investigating Mariano.
Last week, Pasco commissioners approved a $25,000 contract with the Carlton Fields law firm to represent the county’s interests in the investigation including assisting with a response to a Dec. 17, 2020, federal grand jury subpoena. The subpoena, listing an assistant U.S. attorney and an FBI agent as contacts, seeks “all documents and information” regarding the creation of the Hudson golf cart community and for “all documents and information relating to proposed or actual projects for canal dredging and golf cart communities in, near, or adjacent to Hudson, Florida” since March 8, 2017 — exactly one year prior to Mariano buying the property.
“Commissioner Mariano is unaware of why a subpoena has been issued, but welcomes any review of how he does what’s right for the citizens of Pasco County,” his attorney, John Lauro, said in a released statement.
Mariano “is also entitled to earn a living as a private citizen,” the statement said, and the commissioner’s role in the Sunset Phase 4 has been highly publicized and “at no time did he ever use his official position to benefit this project and in fact recused himself from a commission vote on the use of golf carts in the county that could have even remotely affected the property.”
Mariano also has long championed residential canal dredging in west Pasco’s coastal communities and that didn’t stop after the property purchase.
In September 2019, Mariano persuaded the rest of the commission to allocate up to $100,000 in the 2020 county budget to find out how much it would cost to dredge channels serving Gulf Harbors and Hudson. The maneuver allowed the county to speed up the study by piggybacking on an existing contract in another county. But, it also meant Pasco forfeited the opportunity to receive federal reimbursement for the study’s cost from the settlement of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“This is clearly something that will benefit everybody,’' Mariano said then. “... This is the right thing for the coastal part of the county.’'
Eleven months later, he successfully pitched the commission on spending $50,000 for a conceptual design of a seawall for Robert J. Strickland Memorial Park at Hudson Beach. The wall would retain beach sand brought there to top off spoils when the proposed future dredging of Hudson channel was completed. The seawall project, Mariano said, could open up a new swimming area and potentially more boat docking.
“I think it would be a pretty good addition,” Mariano said at the time. “It could be a great change for the county, great for tourist development and, I think, all of Hudson.”
The county’s long-term canal dredging project list, assembled prior to Mariano acquiring the land, also includes water quality testing for the Sea Ranch lagoon near his property.
Hudson Beach is just to the north of the 8.37-acre property owned by Mariano and Sunset Phase 4. The land is adjacent to the existing Gulf Islands Beach and Tennis Resort on Sea Ranch Drive. At the time of the purchase, Mariano said the property would likely house between 50 and 88 units in a five-story building atop two levels of parking. Mariano has said he put up the $45,000 down payment and retained 51 percent ownership of the newly formed partnership.
But the development plans never materialized, and the property went on the market a year ago. The original listing agent was Mariano’s daughter, state Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, who works at Coldwell Banker F.I. Grey & Son Residential Inc. Firm owner Greg Armstrong said he later assumed the listing because of the legislator’s time commitments in Tallahassee.
A potential sale in December didn’t come together when the buyer failed to complete the down payment, Armstrong said. Last month, the price dropped to $4.99 million.
Armstrong said he was unaware of the golf cart community designation and said the land’s value is in the potential to build high-end Gulf-front condominiums that could be marketed to the medical staff at the nearby HCA Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.
Some of the original investors, including businessmen Rod Kielty and William Woodard, have cut ties with the project, Kielty told the Tampa Bay Times in November.
“It wasn’t going like we planned,” Kielty said.
Investor Krishna Ravi, a physician, and another man, John K. Crane, filed a lien for $225,000 on the property in February 2020 that was satisfied two months ago, according to public records.
Another investor, Thomas Girouard who said he invested $40,000 cash and $10,000 worth of in kind services, criticized the investigation.
“It’s a witch hunt,” Girouard said Monday. “It’s ridiculous.”