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Apartment debate divides Pasco commissioners

A recent request to convert a commercial property to multifamily use tests the commission’s resolve to take inventory before approving more apartments.
Shonda Belton, 45, left, walks with a friend, who declined to be identified, near the Altis Grand at The Preserve apartments Wednesday in Odessa.
Shonda Belton, 45, left, walks with a friend, who declined to be identified, near the Altis Grand at The Preserve apartments Wednesday in Odessa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Apr. 13
Updated Apr. 14

DADE CITY — Pasco County officials often express the hope that their community will move beyond being merely a “bedroom community” to Pinellas and Hillsborough.

One way they are discussing that change is to better plan how many bedrooms — specifically those contained in apartment complexes — they allow to be built in the future.

But the process is easier said than done, as demonstrated at last week’s Pasco County Commission meeting, where commissioners debated one such project and were sharply divided.

The discussion turned into a larger philosophical argument about how much is too much multifamily development, and whether previous commissions made the right land use decisions to accommodate the businesses and industries that create jobs.

A sign promoting the building of a 252 apartment homes by Avidity is seen Wednesday along SR 54 at the intersection of Oak Grove Boulevard in Land O’ Lakes.
A sign promoting the building of a 252 apartment homes by Avidity is seen Wednesday along SR 54 at the intersection of Oak Grove Boulevard in Land O’ Lakes. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

A plan by Adventist Health System Sunbelt Healthcare Corporation to turn land zoned commercial into multifamily use was approved last week by a vote of three to two. The change required that the commission approve a conditional use — to use the 16-acre site on the west side of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard just south of Eagleston Boulevard to develop as many as 248 multifamily units.

Later this month, the commission will consider prohibiting all such conditional use decisions to put apartments on land zoned commercial except in certain specified situations. The final hearing and decision will come May 4.

At the same meeting, they will consider a 180-day moratorium on allowing any new multifamily dwelling approvals in the central and southern portions of the county. The six-month pause is intended to allow county planners to inventory how many units already exist, are already under construction and already have the land use permission to build.

The final vote on that also comes May 4.

As commissioners debated the Adventist Health application, they heard again from Mark McBride, a nearby resident who in recent months gathered hundreds of signatures against the project. He and his neighbors share concerns that their area is already oversaturated with apartments. Why, he asked, change commercial land into apartments when two other large land parcels nearby are already properly zoned for multifamily?

Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore
Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore [ File photo ]

Commissioner Mike Moore has spearheaded the argument to curb oversaturation of multifamily in his commission district, with strong opposition to the idea from attorneys representing developers and the Bay Area Apartment Association. But last week, Moore got support from the county’s head of economic development, Bill Cronin, who in an email to commissioners applauded the decision to prevent future conversions of commercial property to apartments.

“There are still too many people living here and working elsewhere,” Cronin wrote. “Our county is not the overflow housing department for Hillsborough and Pinellas counties … we have our own growth strategies and creating more local jobs for our residents is priority.”

Bill Cronin
Bill Cronin [ Pasco Economic Development Council ]

Cronin also echoed arguments made by Moore and by residents who have fought apartment proliferation, writing, “there are plenty of entitlements already granted to fulfill the future housing need.”

“We don’t always have to say yes,” when an application comes forward, Moore said. He pointed to the strong public opposition to such apartment projects getting land use change approvals over and over again.

While the county attorney pointed out that large numbers of opponents were not a legally defensible reason the commission could use to say no, Moore said public opinion was still important. Moore also provided several technical and legally acceptable reasons to say no to the Adventist Health application, but he was outvoted.

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey argued for the conditional use approval. She said she thought the area near the Adventist Health site was oversaturated with commercial property and expressed concern that too much commercial, such as lower-end retail stores, could lower the value of the area. She said multifamily units made sense to her in that location, prompting a spirited exchange with Moore.

Too many vacant apartments can bring blight, Moore argued, noting an area in Tampa where that was a problem.

Commissioner Jack Mariano was the other no vote against the Adventist Health project. Now in his fifth term on the board, Mariano said he was there when many of the land use designations were put in place. While he said he would like to see more apartments built in his northwest Pasco district, he also said he wanted to be sure that job-creating zoning was preserved.

“We need to keep our commercial,” Mariano said.