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Future of Wesley Chapel development up in the air after Pasco commission debate

As Pasco commissioners prepare to expand their apartment moratorium, a divided panel says no to one plan to convert commercial to multifamily.
A Pasco County Commission discussion about a requested land-use change in Wesley Chapel turned into a larger philosophical argument recently about how much is too much multifamily development, and whether previous commissions made the right decisions.
A Pasco County Commission discussion about a requested land-use change in Wesley Chapel turned into a larger philosophical argument recently about how much is too much multifamily development, and whether previous commissions made the right decisions. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jan. 24|Updated Jan. 25

DADE CITY — As Pasco County’s elected leaders grapple with booming growth in the Wesley Chapel area, individual commissioners are painting different, and sometimes conflicting, visions for what they want to see happen there.

Those differing viewpoints were on full display earlier this month when the commission heard an application to change what can get built in one small corner of the Seven Oaks community just east of Interstate 75.

In a 3-2 vote, the commission rejected a plan to convert the allowed retail and office construction to apartments and a parking garage to be built over a smaller retail area. Board members voiced reasons that ranged from wanting to see whatever goes there create lasting jobs to hoping to see the area turn into a central business district for Pasco County even as new homes and apartments fill in former farm lands.

The vote came as the board is about to expand its moratorium on future apartments. That temporary halt on new applications was designed to give county planners a chance to inventory how many apartments have already been approved in that portion of the county.

During a lengthy public hearing preceding the vote, several commissioners sketched their long-term visions for the area.

Commissioner Mike Moore, who initiated the apartment moratorium in his district, made the motion to deny the conversion. He has argued repeatedly that the region doesn’t need more apartments and that turning land destined to create jobs into more bedrooms for workers in other counties is not in Pasco’s best interest.

Commission Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey, who voted against that motion, saw the Wesley Chapel area as Pasco County’s future downtown. There she said she could imagine the construction of multistory buildings clustered in that corridor and a center for both living and working with a robust mass transit system in the decades ahead.

Residents of Seven Oaks, however, saw a far different future for their neighborhood when they bought homes there in recent years.

The master-planned community drawings showed residential areas surrounded by shops and restaurants. Resident after resident described making their homebuying decisions based on a concrete plan of what to expect in the future, and a high-rise downtown area with luxury apartments clustered around one of their main, already-busy thoroughfares was not in that picture.

The Seven Oaks application was first heard several months ago. In September, the county’s planning staff recommended denial of a request to turn the 10-acre parcel, east of Ancient Oaks Boulevard and adjacent to the Sam’s Club, from 86,000 square feet of commercial and office space to 320 apartments.

Part of the planners’ argument was that the original land use for the parcel would contribute more to the county in revenue than it would consume in services, but an apartment development would consume more in services than it would contribute in revenue.

The Planning Commission agreed and recommended denial.

A procedural issue arose and the applicant went back to the drawing board and negotiated with county planners, bringing forward a new plan to shrink the commercial and office space to 20,000 square feet, instead of getting rid of it altogether. The project would still have the 320 apartments and a parking garage. After an analysis by county planners that said the new plan was more favorable to county goals, the Planning Commission recommended approval last month.

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The new plan came to the County Commission on Jan. 11.

Keith Gelder, president of Stock Development, the applicant, showed commissioners the plan for four-story apartment buildings with nearby parking and high-end amenities. Joel Tew, representing the company, said in normal circumstances, the county should be warmly embracing such a quality project.

One after another, community leaders and residents urged commissioners to reject the plan.

“This is not what we want at the front of our Seven Oaks entrance,” said Jason Canterbury, who expressed concerns about the congestion from the small-sized parcel packed with apartments and the effect that population would have on local schools.

“The last thing we need are more apartments,” said Lilian Burnette.

Jim Kotlyn wanted the county to stick with its plan to have commercial and office space, which is what he could use for his own security business instead of having to find space in Hillsborough County.

“Please don’t eliminate valuable commercial space,” said James Henrich. He was also upset that the developer wanted a deviation from park requirements for the project. “Do you want your kids playing in the Sam’s Club parking lot?” he asked.

After public discussion, Moore asked a series of strategic questions. For him, the bottom line was that the applicant was proposing changes that would result in fewer employment opportunities than if the land use stayed as it is, which the county desperately needs.

He was joined in his vote against the project by fellow commissioners Jack Mariano and Ron Oakley. Mariano said with a half-million residents in Pasco and only 19 percent working in Pasco, he was comfortable with the original plan for the commercial and office space. Oakley said he always thought that there was not enough land for the scope of the project developers are proposing.

Starkey and Commissioner Christina Fitzpatrick voted against rejecting the application. Starkey said that the area actually needs more apartments, that commercial development would bring more traffic, and that the plan presented by the applicant didn’t take any commercial uses away from Seven Oaks. It simply moved them to different places in the community.

Creating the kind of vertical, mixed-use construction with retail on the ground floor that the applicant proposed attracts “really special” kinds of commercial options, Starkey said, including “mom-and-pop opportunities for entrepreneurship.”

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