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  1. Pasco

Clustered growth or the next Clermont? Proposed hillside development draws objections from tiny St. Leo

DADE CITY — Grande Oaks is the name affixed to a sloping 175 acres filled with pastures, maple and oaks trees and a vine-covered pole barn amid east Pasco's rural serenity.

One of the nearest neighbors sits just to the west along State Road 52 — St. Leo Town Hall.

The two properties are now at odds.

And in what seems like a rarity in Florida, it is the local government objecting to growth while the owner of scenic land is eager for the bulldozers.

The Iafrate family is seeking to turn the empty pasture of Grande Oaks into a bustling neighborhood of 600 homes and 400,000 square feet of commercial and office space, much of it clustered in a town center to be built a quarter-mile south of the current intersection of SR 52 and Prospect Road.

The precise location of the town center is not happenstance. It's where the new multi-lane SR 52, construction of which is scheduled to start later this year, will cut directly through the Iafrete property on its way to Clinton Avenue in Dade City.

St. Leo, a town of fewer than 1,200 people that is dominated by Saint Leo University's campus, is fearful of all those new homes and people coming to its border. The land abuts the town, but the proposed development is in Pasco County's bailiwick.

Arnold Curington lives on St. Leo's eastern-most street, Shakespeare Trail, right next to the Iafrate property. He told the Pasco County Planning Commission last week that he worried about the development, including hundreds of homes with backyard patios and swimming pools, jammed onto just 175 acres.

"I question where there will room for a grand oak,'' he said.

Mayor Richard Christmas said the town favored a one-home-per-acre density to match development of the nearby Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club.

"The town's not saying no to development, but development next to the town has to be compatible,'' said Christmas.

Iafrate Properties is seeking zoning to build 600 homes, but simultaneously is requesting an amendment to the county's long-range land plan that would allow up to 900 housing units. That came at the suggestion of the county planning staff, which wanted to accommodate potential long-term growth at Saint Leo University by making space for 300 off-campus apartments.

Nine hundred housing units, plus commercial development equal to three Home Depot stores, said Christmas, is just too dense and incompatible with St. Leo's rural character.

South and east of the Iafrate land sits the Villages at Pasadena Hills, a county-approved, but largely undeveloped 22,000-acre planning district initiated more than a dozen years ago. The amount of development proposed for Grande Oaks matches what would be allowed within Pasadena Hills. The plan also calls for higher density clustered at town centers with less intensive development transitioning outward.

"We're trying not to mess things up there,'' said Matt Armstrong, the county's former executive long-range planner. He now works in the private sector and is representing Iafrate Properties. "Density in the right way in the right place can be a good thing.''

And advocating for a string of one-home-per-acre developments?

"That is the definition of sprawl,'' said Iafrate's land-use attorney Barbara Wilhite.

Tom Ashburn of Nexgen Land Planners, representing St. Leo, said the proposed development failed to consider the area's topography and did not safeguard the scenic vistas offered by east Pasco's rolling hills. He and Christmas both said they feared development duplicating the Clermont area in Lake County. There, the hilltop citrus groves gave way to new homes and a string of retail development along State Road 50.

"That's not something that anybody wants to see happen again,'' agreed Armstrong.

Unswayed by the town's arguments, the planning commission unanimously approved both the zoning change and the land plan amendment. The final decision, however, rests with the Pasco County Commission, which has scheduled public hearings May 21 and July 9.

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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