NEW PORT RICHEY — Since 2014, residents around a 41-acre undeveloped swath of land known as Oaks Park have been anticipating the arrival of their first bill to protect the site from development.
This week the Pasco County Commission voted to give them another year’s reprieve after they raised questions at a budget hearing about how their proposed bills were calculated, why they had to pay for cleaning up the county property and how residents who will be part of the assessment were determined.
In 2007, developer Chris Scherer bought the land for $1.5 million and, over the next several years, made plans to build 240 apartments. Nearby residents from Heritage Lake and Riverside Village packed county meetings urging officials to deny the project because they said it would snarl traffic and change the nature of the area.
In 2014 the commission agreed to pay $3 million to buy the site and protect it from development, and recover that money through a special assessment. County officials met with nearby homeowners groups and it was decided that the site would be maintained as an open space and that residents living within a half-mile walking distance of the property would be part of the assessment.
Efforts to raise some of that money from the Florida Legislature failed, and several more years passed before the commission voted last year to move the process forward. That would mean establishing the assessment amount and who would pay, and sending out bills later this year with property tax notices.
Keith Wiley, the county’s director of parks, recreation and natural resources, told commissioners Tuesday that the first-year assessment would be $164.80, which also would include a one-time cleanup charge of $50,000. The annual assessment would be $135.56 for years two through 15, and then $18.13 per year after that — subject to change in the cost of maintaining the site.
Residents protested. They wanted to know why they were paying to clean up the trash that had accumulated on the county’s property over the years when the county has paid cleanup bills on other sites, why the cost for that trash collection was so high and why there were discrepancies in the half-mile radius established.
“I don’t understand the methodology,” said nearby resident Jon Russell, a former maintenance coordinator for the city parks in Clearwater. The community didn’t create the litter on the site, he said, and $50,000 was excessive. Russell also asked why the zoning has not yet been changed to designate that the land would be a park.
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Neighbors described issues on the land ranging from dirt bike trails to target ranges. Others said they lived too far away from the site to get any benefit.
Resident Fred Colucci said other communities such as Gulf Harbors didn’t have to pay for a cleanup after Pasco purchased land there. He also said that the math on the assessment doesn’t add up. “Please put a hold on this project,” he said.
Later, commissioners agreed they would not charge for the cleanup cost.
Commissioner Jack Mariano said he thought it still was worth exploring the idea of cutting off part of the property and possibly marketing it for single-family home lots like those in surrounding communities. That would help offset the cost that residents would pay, he said.
Commission chairperson Kathryn Starkey said she thought residents had already made it clear they wanted open space.
Resident William Day said he was OK paying the annual assessment. “I don’t want an apartment complex in the middle of my neighborhood,” he said.