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Pasco commissioners vote to follow through with promise on park land

Heritage Lake and Riverside Village will get their park, and the bill to pay for it, after all.
The backyard of Jon Russell’s New Port Richey home is seen with The Oaks Park property in the distance Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. Residents of Heritage Lake and Riverside Village Estates subdivisions have been fighting the development of a more than 41-acre property that straddles both areas for the past 14 years.
The backyard of Jon Russell’s New Port Richey home is seen with The Oaks Park property in the distance Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. Residents of Heritage Lake and Riverside Village Estates subdivisions have been fighting the development of a more than 41-acre property that straddles both areas for the past 14 years. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Sep. 29

NEW PORT RICHEY — Residents of Heritage Lake and Riverside Village, who fought years ago against plans for an apartment complex in the midst of their single-family-home communities, will finally get what they wanted.

They will also get to pay for it, starting with the tax bills they receive next year.

The Pasco County Commission voted this week to send an interlocal agreement to Tax Collector Mike Fasano, alerting him that the county plans to begin assessing residents in those communities for the purchase of the 41-acre site, which the county bought for $3 million in July 2014.

The purchase had been made after residents argued against a plan to place a 240-unit apartment complex on the site, because of its incompatibility with their community and the traffic and drainage issues they feared it would bring.

At the time, the understanding was that the county would divvy up the purchase cost over 15 years and charge an annual assessment to the neighbors. But that plan never materialized.

The county sought help from state legislators to help defray the costs. But allocations approved by the Legislature were vetoed by Governor Rick Scott. The plan stalled for several years.

Recently, there was new discussion that a developer wanted to buy the upland portion of the parcel and develop a smaller project. Last month, county officials said that they were preparing letters to go out to the homeowners’ organizations in the area to explain the potential options.

But those who attended the commission meeting earlier this month in Dade City wanted no part of the compromise housing plan, and the commission agreed to take up the issue this week.

On Tuesday, several nearby residents from Southern Oaks said they were concerned about the cost of the assessment, which was predicted to be $135.39 per year for 1,588 lots over the next 15 years.

An egret forages near the water’s edge along The Oaks Park property Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021 in New Port Richey. Residents of Heritage Lake and Riverside Village Estates subdivisions have been fighting the development of a more than 41-acre property that straddles both areas for the past 14 years.
An egret forages near the water’s edge along The Oaks Park property Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021 in New Port Richey. Residents of Heritage Lake and Riverside Village Estates subdivisions have been fighting the development of a more than 41-acre property that straddles both areas for the past 14 years. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Jean Cifelli urged a delay in enacting the assessment. She said her neighbors didn’t know that commissioners were considering this issue. Many had been isolated during the pandemic and she was worried the added costs would be an additional, unnecessary burden on some in the community.

But others repeated they had waited long enough for the county to finalize their promise. “Seven years have passed that should never have passed,” said William Gillies, one of those who had originally led the fight against the apartments.

Riverside Village resident Miriam Butler said that if the county had followed through with the original timeline, “we’d be halfway through the assessment already.” She said residents knew what the county had agreed to do in the past and “we wanted what you promised to be enacted.”

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Adding denser development to the area would snarl traffic and “would change the quality of life in the neighborhood,” Butler said.

Commissioner Jack Mariano made the motion to follow through with the previous decision, saying the issue had been fully vetted before. Commissioner Christina Fitzpatrick later made a motion to begin the process of changing the future land use designation of the site to recreational and open space.

That would begin the process of making it clear that the site would be used for a park in the future and not development, said county attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder. Commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with that process.

County parks staff are working on a development plan for the park that will occupy the site, said Cathy Pearson, assistant county administrator for public services, She said county officials will be speaking with homeowners’ groups about various options.