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Pasco commissioners return to park plan after residents reject development

New Port Richey subdivision residents convince the county that they still want their park and are willing to pay.
 
The entrance to the Riverside Village subdivision on Sept. 23, 2021, in New Port Richey. Residents of Heritage Lake and Riverside Village have been fighting the development of the 41-acre Oak Park property that straddles both areas for years.
The entrance to the Riverside Village subdivision on Sept. 23, 2021, in New Port Richey. Residents of Heritage Lake and Riverside Village have been fighting the development of the 41-acre Oak Park property that straddles both areas for years. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Sept. 19|Updated Sept. 20

The New Port Richey residents who have fought for a decade to have a park in their neighborhood prevailed Tuesday as the Pasco County Commission rejected the idea of offering the 41-acre property known as Oaks Park to developers.

Residents in Heritage Lake, Riverside Village and other surrounding communities were brutal in their message to the commission when they learned that the county was planning on declaring the undisturbed green space as surplus property and offering it for sale.

Even though the county was limiting development there to 100 residential units of either single-family houses or townhouses, residents who turned out Tuesday still wanted the commission to fulfill a promise made in 2014.

That was the year the county paid $3 million to buy the property, which had been slated for development into 240 apartments — the plan that mobilized surrounding residents. In an area already experiencing issues with traffic and drainage problems, the idea of an apartment development was unacceptable to them.

County officials said that residents would have to pay for that park themselves, which was supported at the time. But after making the purchase, the county tried to find state money to offset some of that cost. Several years passed and the county last year finally came forward with a payment plan that would cost each resident $164.80 for the first year and $135.56 annually for the next 14 years.

Some area residents rejected that cost and that jump-started discussion again that development might be the answer.

An egret forages near the water’s edge along the Oaks Park property on Sept. 23, 2021, in New Port Richey. Residents of Heritage Lake, Riverside Village and other surrounding communities have been fighting development of the property.
An egret forages near the water’s edge along the Oaks Park property on Sept. 23, 2021, in New Port Richey. Residents of Heritage Lake, Riverside Village and other surrounding communities have been fighting development of the property. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Residents said Tuesday they still want their park and they still need the county to honor that deal.

For Barb Ross, the plan for the park convinced her she wanted to buy in Riverside Village, she told commissioners. “That’s why most of the residents chose to live there,” she said.

“It’s so important in this day and age that we say what we mean and we mean what we say,” said Mike Bloom, a Heritage Lake resident who said the county’s commitment to a park was “a big deal.”

Another resident, Miriam Butler, has been involved with the controversy from the beginning and is current president of the homeowners association for Riverside Village. To renege on the previous deal, she said, puts the community “right back where we started.”

She and others complained that time had passed and the residents willing to pay for the park hadn’t changed their minds. “We wonder if you’re waiting for us to just move away or die,” Butler said.

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey recounted how the Oaks Park deal evolved. She said older subdivisions developed around that area, unlike current new developments, were not required to provide any space for recreation. She said neighborhood children, including her own, would play ball in dried-up retention pond beds because there was no other choice.

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“We don’t need to build on every freaking piece of land in this county,” she said, adding that other communities such as Gulf Harbors have also made the choice to pay money to have land set aside for private parks for their residents.

As for what some had previously considered an excessive fee to pay annually for the park, Starkey put that in a different perspective. Recently the county approved a large increase in the amount that new development pays for parks and recreation to $3,500 per new home. Residents near Oaks Park will see their $135 as a good deal for a private park, she said.

“This is an opportunity for a community that never had a park to have its own park. where they can go walk their dogs, where their kids can play or they can just go and enjoy nature,” she said.

Commissioners voted 4-0 to reject the idea of putting the land up for a surplus sale.

Keith Wiley, the county’s director of parks, recreation and natural resources, said that the county will now go back to developing an assessment plan, which residents of the communities surrounding the Oaks Park land would begin paying for next year.