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Pasco to sue apartment developers seeking to build under Live Local Act

Commissioners hope clarifying court rulings might stop the loss of precious commercial and industrial sites.
 
The West Pasco Government Center, at 8731 Citizens Dr in New Port Richey, houses the County Commission Chambers.
The West Pasco Government Center, at 8731 Citizens Dr in New Port Richey, houses the County Commission Chambers. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 5, 2023|Updated Dec. 6, 2023

Pasco County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to take their beef with the new Live Local Act to the courts, vowing to sue any developer who would seek to build apartments on industrial or commercial land as permitted under the new law.

That legal action could also prompt the Florida attorney general to weigh in since Pasco’s legal team would be calling elements of the Live Local Act unconstitutional.

At stake is the conversion of land Pasco officials have fought for years to establish sites for future businesses and industries to produce jobs. The effort has been intentional as the county leaders have long worked to shake off their bedroom community status.

As Chief Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein told commissioners Tuesday, seeking a declaratory legal judgment was more like a “scalpel” approach to address concerns with the law. Commissioners have discussed placing a moratorium on new apartment development while the county pursues changes to the Live Local Act, officials calling it the “nuclear option.”

The moratorium idea came up recently when Commissioner Seth Weightman shared the location of several new proposed projects, including a large site at the intersection of Old Pasco and Overpass roads. The state recently finished a new interchange at Overpass Road and Interstate 75, which cost Pasco more than $60 million, an expense the county accepted given the strong growth of industrial and commercial development in the area.

The law allows developers to turn land now zoned for commercial, industrial and mixed uses into apartments if 40% is designated for affordable housing. In return, the developer would not have to go through costly and time-consuming land-use change requests or negotiate with the county over development conditions, which otherwise would be required.

A portion of those projects would then get property tax exemptions for years, which county officials oppose because it costs more for the government to provide services to residential areas than it does for businesses. It would result in less tax revenue to pay for those services, such as police and fire protection.

Pasco already has a dozen locations where developers are eyeing such projects and Goldstein said that is many more than other counties.

Goldstein said the county and others have found 22 legal issues with the law that need to be clarified as they either raise constitutional concerns or are ambiguous. One of those related to the special tax break that such projects get for years after the development is done, something set aside for charities.

While the law was pushed by legislators to create more affordable housing, the definition of affordable is “120% of the average median income.’ That includes households making as much as $70,000. Goldstein said that if the goal was to provide housing for residents at an income below the median, it would be a different conversation.

“There is a strong argument that it is not a charitable purpose,” he said. Some would say the law “basically is just a subsidy for for-profit apartment builders.”

Weightman said that the developer of the land at Overpass and Old Pasco roads hearing the strong opposition to the use of the Live Local Act, has been negotiating with the county. Under the discussion, they would consider going through the regular application process and adding some commercial or industrial on the site while retaining residential uses. He wondered if his fellow commissioners would be willing to do that.

They rejected the idea, voting instead for legal action if applications are filed.

Commissioner Jack Mariano took it a step further. He said that if the legal action doesn’t resolve the problem, he would be willing to go back to discussing a moratorium.

Story was updated to clarify a comment by Chief Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein about the nature of the legal action the county could bring against developers and the role of the Florida Attorney General if an action is filed.