DADE CITY — For the last several months a citizens group appointed by the county has analyzed locations in northeast Pasco to determine which would be appropriate for future commercial growth.
Their work complements previous county commitments to establish residential project protections in the one area of Pasco County still largely undeveloped as the rest of the county explodes with construction projects.
On Tuesday, at the urging of the county commissioner from that district, Ron Oakley, the committee’s work came to an abrupt end.
The commission voted unanimously to disband the advisory committee, which included large landowners, a planner, a real estate broker, community activists, water resource professionals and local business owners, because Oakley said their input had been too negative.
“We’ve had three or four meetings and we haven’t gotten any real good advice from this committee, to say the least,” Oakley said. “Most of the answers coming from it are negative or ‘no, we can’t do that.’ ”
He was especially riled, he said, that the chairwoman of the committee, Lisa Moretti, complained that Oakley told the committee they could not discuss a 130-acre RV resort planned for the northeast intersection of Lake Iola Road and Interstate 75.
Moretti took it upon herself to speak in opposition to the 550-space RV development before the Pasco County Planning Commission earlier this month, Oakley said.
Oakley’s personal ties to that project have previously raised questions from local residents.
Oakley told commissioners last week that the reason for the committee was to provide good advice, “not to attack me on different projects that were going to come up.”
He also said that all of the negativity he heard from the committee helped him formulate his idea for what the area really needs — dense residential development behind landscaped buffers and not visible from the main roadways. “The only way you can have development of any significance in that area, it would have to be numbers, density,” Oakley said. “If you don’t have density, it’s not going to do anything.”
During the Jan. 6 planning commission hearing on the RV project, Moretti urged a delay in the process until the committee had time to develop its commercial standards. She said the project was unique. It wasn’t considered residential since the RV occupants would be transient, so the previous rural area standards wouldn’t apply. It also wasn’t considered commercial, but had common qualities of a commercial project.
To approve the project before commercial standards were done would send a message to the citizens committee, she said, “that their work doesn’t matter and they might as well go into a corner and talk into a void.”
The Planning Commission voted to recommend approval of the project anyway. The County Commission is expected to decide on the application in February.
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Moretti, who was not at Tuesday’s meeting when the committee was disbanded, said that the commission was misinformed about what the committee had done so far and she was disappointed that Oakley “misleadingly chose to paint me and the committee in such a demeaning fashion.”
The committee had already recommended one of the commercial areas for future development, a node at Trilby and Blanton Road. “The group has worked to find compromise,” Moretti said. “Mr. Oakley is our representative in District 1 and he asked for our input.
“I’m sorry he didn’t like what the committee has come up with but it seems the residents of Northeast Pasco want to keep the rural agricultural nature of the area just that: low-density, rural, small-town, and reinforcing the values of the agricultural lifestyle,” Moretti said.
Opposition to the RV resort isn’t new. For two years residents have opposed the project, which they say will damage their idyllic community and bring unwanted traffic to their scenic roadways. Residents have questioned Oakley’s objectivity on the project, given that his sister and her husband sold the land to a developer.
The current owner, Vcare Consultants Inc., purchased the property for $1.2 million from Oakley’s sister Ann Oakley Maggard and her husband, Dale Edward Maggard, the brother of State Rep. Randy Maggard, R-Dade City. Despite that connection, Oakley has said that he will be able to give the project a fair hearing.
At the time of the first discussion of a project plan, Oakley’s family, under the name Lake Placid Groves LLC, owned a 230-acre parcel 1.4 miles away that is next door to another recreational vehicle development, Travelers Rest RV Resort and Golf Course. Vcare Consultants cited that nearby location as proof that recreational vehicle sites were already in the neighborhood. According to property records, the property was sold last year to a Zephyrhills company, Hill Top Views, for $2 million.
While residents have continued to fight the Vcare project, the applicant has continued to negotiate with county officials. Since the original application, the number of RV spaces dropped from 675 to 550, said Barbara Wilhite, the attorney representing the developer. She said they had met with residents, slowed down the project and “really listened to their concerns.”
At the planning commission meeting earlier this month, Francis Chandler-Marino, the consultant who worked on the residential rural overlay protection plan for the northeast area of the county, testified that the project fit the property. The 550-unit RV was an appropriate density, she said, especially since it was adjacent to Interstate 75, and it met all of the county’s land development rules.
After hearing Oakley’s pitch to disband the citizens advisory committee, county commissioners voted unanimously to follow his recommendation. Commissioner Mike Moore said he was concerned that citizens were making recommendations on hearings that have complex legal requirements. Commission Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey suggested that the committee might be reconstituted in the future with members who have more diverse viewpoints.
Moretti said she was disappointed in the commissioners.
“To just say the committee should be disbanded and new people that are aligned with Mr. Oakley’s vision of urban disguised as rural be installed defeats the whole purpose of asking for the community’s input,” she said. “The group has worked to find compromise but it doesn’t fit with Mr. Oakley’s vision. Doesn’t that mean it should still be taken into consideration?”