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Shrinking Pasco parking lots again stirs debate over county’s future

The county Planning Commission says setting a maximum for parking spaces is not the answer.
 
Overgrown vegetation spills into the parking lot outside the former Sears store at the Gulfview Square Mall in a 2022 photo. That portion of the mall, which is now being developed into apartments, was one of many areas in west Pasco where sprawling and empty parking lots generated discussion of future parking needs as Pasco becomes more urban. The Pasco County Planning Commission has again pushed back against creating parking maximums to cut down on future parking spaces. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Overgrown vegetation spills into the parking lot outside the former Sears store at the Gulfview Square Mall in a 2022 photo. That portion of the mall, which is now being developed into apartments, was one of many areas in west Pasco where sprawling and empty parking lots generated discussion of future parking needs as Pasco becomes more urban. The Pasco County Planning Commission has again pushed back against creating parking maximums to cut down on future parking spaces. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ] [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 10|Updated Feb. 13

As Pasco County grapples with one growing pain after another, the latest discussion by planners could determine whether patrons have to park on the roadside when they visit their favorite bar or go-to Friday night dinner spot.

The review of parking requirements for new development grew out of the concern that Pasco’s newer high-traffic roadways such as State Road 54 and State Road 56 will one day pass vacant lots. That characterizes parts of U.S. 19, contributing to a look of economic decline.

Empty pavement stretches along that roadway, which once provided parking for a much larger Gulfview Square Mall and other former shopping and dining destinations. Long-enforced parking requirements that set a minimum number of spaces for businesses have been part of that problem, county planners have said.

Several months ago, they presented a proposal to set maximum parking limits to the Pasco County Planning Commission. But that board, which provides advisory recommendations to the County Commission, rejected the proposal as too urban and fraught with unintended consequences.

The consultant and planners went back to the drawing board and brought a new proposal to the Planning Commission last week. Again the majority voted to reject the idea of setting any parking maximums and unrealistic minimums.

Planning Commissioner Jon Moody took issue with most of the parking recommendations, arguing that they didn’t make sense.

In the new rules, restaurants of 5,000 square feet would be limited to as few as five spaces, Moody said. His research showed that a restaurant such as LongHorn Steakhouse, with 184 seats and 5,710 square feet, would expect to need at least 127 parking spaces.

Market forces would be what would drive the business decision on parking, said Brad Tippin, the county’s development review manager.

“I understand that,” Moody said during the Thursday meeting. “I’m not worried about a McDonald’s coming in here and building a restaurant with five spaces because they’re not that stupid. But I have clients that are that stupid and will do that.”

Moody, an engineer, asked fellow planning commissioners if they knew about Skinny’s Bar and Grill on U.S. 19 or the Fisherman’s Shack in Aripeka. Those kinds of businesses, he said, have so few spaces that patrons must park on the road.

“That’s the danger when you make the minimums too low,” he said.

Planning commissioners did agree that changing customer habits may have reduced the need for so much parking, as people increasingly shop online. Planning Commissioner Derek Pontlitz said he would support cutting back on minimum spaces for retail stores.

Moody said a recent Sunday visit to his local Walmart showed him that even during a busy time, a portion of the lot was unfilled, and he agreed that could be addressed.

Of the new proposal, he said, it was “a dangerous precedent and I don’t think this is what the commissioners have asked for.” He also said that he met with county commissioners about their concerns, including Kathryn Starkey. She wanted to reduce apartment parking space requirements in certain types of developments without a special vote of commissioners. Moody said he supported that.

He also recommended that the county reduce parking requirement minimums by 20% for retail establishments, given the changes everyone acknowledged in consumer buying habits.

Moody said he opposed setting maximums. He said he was told that planning staff had been reviewing applications and determined that some projects were putting in too much parking. “Staff didn’t feel it was a good use of the land,” he said. “But that’s not the staff’s job.”

Once a developer meets all other code requirements, “it’s their land and they have the right to use that land under our zoning,” Moody said.

Planning commissioners voted 4-2 to reject the new parking plan and reject maximum parking standards. They agreed to reducing minimum parking for retail by 20% and accepted the reduced parking for some apartments backed by Starkey.

They also recommended using the staff’s newly proposed standards that would allow more parking for single-family and multifamily developments because of more parking needs in communities with smaller lots.

The proposal will next go to the County Commission for consideration.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Brad Tippin’s name