NEW PORT RICHEY — While Pasco County has long tried to shed its image as a bedroom community for the counties to its south, it now confronts a variation on the timeless dilemma: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
The Central Pasco Employment Village, a 2,400-acre swath of land with 13 separate property owners, was organized more than a dozen years ago under a common set of development rules. The land is at the center of public debate over which should come first: businesses and industries that bring jobs, or housing for the people working in those jobs.
One landowner, the Swope family, has snagged interest from Lennar Homes to construct hundreds of homes on an 83-acre portion of their land. That prompted a request to change several sections of the comprehensive plan language which created the employment village.
It’s a move that has drawn criticism from Bill Cronin, president and chief executive officer for the Pasco Economic Development Council.
At a recent Pasco Planning Commission meeting, the issue brought sharp criticism from Joel Tew, the attorney representing the property, toward Cronin. The item divided planning commissioners; they ultimately voted three to two to recommend that the comprehensive plan changes be denied by the County Commission. County commissioners could have their first of two hearings on the changes June 8.
The employment center parcel is located south of State Road 52, stretching from the Collier Parkway Extension to Bellamy Brothers Boulevard. The portion identified for construction of commercial and industrial uses runs along the highway. Housing was projected to go in to the south of those businesses and industries.
The agreements that created the village in 2008 tied all 13 property owners together under a complex set of rules and shares of the roughly 4,500 residential units that could someday be constructed in the area.
Tew said his client wants to see several of the rules changed. But the one issue that dominated the discussion and sparked controversy revolves around development of the commercial and industrial properties.
In their presentation to planning commissioners, Tew and Pat Gassaway of Heidt Design, representing the Swope family, argued that the employment center rules, to build business shell buildings on the commercial sites first, are not practical and have attracted no interest. To provide the road and utility line infrastructure for the Swope family parcel alone will cost more than $13 million.
They suggested making the changes that would allow Lennar to develop housing first and pay to get that infrastructure in place. Then businesses could come to the adjacent properties without the financial burden. To do anything else, Tew said, would be “insanity.”
Several professionals who market such sites also weighed in, saying it was not realistic to expect the business development without having the infrastructure there in the first place.
He told the planning commission that he is working with one of the original landowners in the employment village who is planning to construct a 500,000-square-foot facility on one of the business sites. While Cronin couldn’t get into details of the negotiation, he said the project proves that the industrial and business lands can successfully be marketed by those willing to build infrastructure and a business facility on a site.
In fact, Cronin said, while some companies see having infrastructure in place as a key feature to a site, others are immediately concerned about housing already built adjacent to a potential location.
Cronin noted that at that very same planning commission meeting, they had all witnessed dozens of residents vehemently opposing commercial encroachment on their neighborhood — a scenario that would make potential business clients cringe.
“It is the Central Pasco Employment Village,” Cronin said. “It is not the Central Pasco residential village.”
Cronin also said that when the Economic Development Council examined 67 potential future business development sites to get certified under the organization’s “ready site” designation, the Central Pasco Employment Village ranked first, with its large tracts of available land, its location on an important state road and its proximity to Interstate 75.
Cronin’s opposition was echoed by Sheriff Chris Nocco. In a letter, Nocco voiced his continuing concern that each new residential area developed in Pasco was expanding the need for his services.
Tew told planning commission members that the example Cronin gave of the one parcel planned for the 500,000-square-foot business was not a valid argument. Since that site is at the corner of Bellamy Brothers Boulevard, utility lines are already nearby, significantly cutting the cost of development.
Tew also said he “was very upset about what has happened today.” He said he had spoken with county administrator Dan Biles and understood that if his client agreed to look at having sites certified under the Economic Development Council’s “ready site” plan that Cronin would not continue to object to changes in the comprehensive plan.
Without the changes, the land would continue to sit undeveloped, Tew argued. He said that Cronin had “reneged, backtracked and ambushed us.”
Cronin responded that he did not make any such agreement. He said it came down to “a trust Issue” and that his job is to create jobs.
“This is not a behind-the-scenes, horse trading kind of maneuver,” Cronin said, noting that the proposed changes fly in the face of the site’s original concept.
“Infrastructure is not a substitute for a building and employment center,” Cronin said.