City and county leaders agree that there is plenty wrong with the New Port Richey community surrounding Leisure Lane.
Officials have worked for years to find a ways to address homes and trailers that have fallen into disrepair and chronic flooding, as well as crime and homelessness that have spread into the surrounding community.
“This is more than an eyesore,” New Port Richey City Manager Debbie Manns told Pasco County commissioners this week. “This is an area that has been allowed to deteriorate to a condition that just defies human habitation.”
The situation is complicated because the community is an enclave, which means it is completely surrounded by the city but is not in the city. But this week, the Pasco County Commission and the city of New Port Richey reached an agreement that would change that. The agreement also includes a partnership both sides hope will finally begin to spark redevelopment and elevate the area, now referred to as Town and Country Villas.
The first step of the agreement is New Port Richey annexing the 24-acre parcel, which is located just west of U.S. 19 and north of the Southgate Shopping Center, which city leaders said is a top city taxpayer. That jurisdictional change would happen next year.
The second step is a joint agreement in which the county agrees to pay $2 million out of its general fund to bring public water and sewer utilities to the site.
The city would agree to spend $1.5 million to provide other needed infrastructure, including an upgraded road system, street lighting, parks, landscaping and a stormwater management system to give new development a chance. Manns said changing the neighborhood isn’t possible without infrastructure investments. City leaders also said they recognize that the investments needed would likely cost more than that.
“This is a very important project to the city despite the fact that it is property that is not located in the city,” Manns said.
She said to county officials that, “if you don’t think you’re spending money in the area now, you are.”
Manns said the county has “ordinance-related issues,” such as violations of county codes that are not being addressed. In addition, the area has been the location of hundreds of police and fire calls even though it is a neighborhood encompassing only four blocks.
Manns expressed some frustration that original talks about addressing problems on Leisure Lane and the surrounding neighborhood started in 2018. “It is now 2023 and all we have now is further deterioration,” she said.
New Port Richey City Council members encouraged commissioners to get on board with the proposal. “We think this is a great opportunity for you to partner with us,” said City Council member Mike Peters. He said that with the county and city working together, the work gets done “with half the cost” for each entity.
County Commissioner Jack Mariano balked at the agreement and the county spending money to build the utility system based on the history of what has happened in the area.
“It’s their service area,” he said. “They could have done it. They should have done it. Why are we spending our money?”
He also suggested that the city should seek state grants both for utility expansion and to address the ongoing flooding problems.
He asked Manns whether the city has ever sought such a resiliency grant to address flooding and Manns said it has but was turned down. She added that the land was not within the city’s jurisdiction but rather the county’s. Both Mariano and Manns agreed that now both entities can apply together for grant money to potentially reduce the hit on public funds.
County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said the county spending $2 million on utilities was “a wash” because once the city took over the zone and began building roads there, it would cost them just as much, an expense the county wouldn’t then have to bear.
Starkey said that she regularly shops at the nearby Publix. “I see what this very, very blighted area does to the community,” she said.
Stores in that plaza “have to hire security to keep the drug deals from going on in the parking lot,” she said. “I think we have an opportunity here to partner with the city and to clean up the most blighted area ... and it’s good deal.”
Starkey said she had hoped that a previous deal with Habitat for Humanity to build more homes in that area had worked out, but she said new developers should be able to make improvements. She did push for a condition within the agreement that no mobile homes would be allowed in the area. Manns said the city plans to change its rules to be sure that doesn’t happen and other county commissioners agreed to that rule.
Jim Hanson, regional project manager for Woolbright Development Inc., the company now overseeing Southgate Shopping Center, encouraged the city and county to ink the partnership and make the changes necessary, citing the ongoing security issues in the plaza.
“If you don’t start,” he said, “you’ll never get to the end and it won’t change.”