NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County commissioners voted Tuesday to right a 30-year-old wrong when they agreed to spend $3 million from the reserve fund to stop construction of the controversial Oaks at Riverside apartment complex.
But homeowners who fought the project for years will have to repay the county over the next 15 years. Commissioners voted unanimously to establish a special district to assess properties within a half-mile of the site up to $125 a year.
“When people talk about an assessment, $10 a month not to have those apartments there — I don’t think that’s such a terrible thing,” Commissioner Pat Mulieri said.
Developer Chris Scherer agreed to sell the 41.5-acre tract to the county rather than build the 240 permitted apartments on the site. The property on Amazon Drive is surrounded by the Heritage Lakes subdivision, which fought the project relentlessly. “I’m trying to do what’s right for everybody,” he said. “I’m giving up construction profits. I’m giving up income for me and my family for the rest of my life.”
He bought the property in 2007 for $1.5 million — with zoning for apartments that predates that by decades — but also has paid for architectural plans, legal fees, permitting costs and multiple drainage studies. The county would have 90 days to close on the property after executing the contract.
Bob Rock, president of the Heritage Lakes Community Association, said the 55-plus neighborhood would account for nearly 60 percent of the assessed homes. “For the last two years we’ve been fighting the developer to do away with these apartments,” he said. “We’re very happy the county is looking to buy the property.”
Rock initially said the seniors shouldn’t have to bear the cost of the purchase. “We would ask that you purchase the land out of reserves — the county has the money — and not assess the residents at all,” he said. He later relented, saying the assessment would be “doable.”
However, he objected to the proposal to charge homeowners 4 percent interest over the 15-year payback period. Commissioners didn’t want to waive the interest but said they would match the reserve fund’s interest rate, which is less than 1 percent, so there would be a zero gain.
William Day, who lives in Riverside Village, said he completely supports the purchase — even with the assessment and interest. “That’s a sweet deal,” he said. “Try to get a credit card with a half-percent interest rate.”
Bill Gillies, who founded the opposition group We Are 5533 Strong, said he supports the assessment but hopes the county will find a way to reduce it. “It’s a gamble I’m willing to take, and I think the majority of our members would agree,” he said.
Other residents asked the county to use stormwater funding to buy the property and build a retention pond, but County Administrator Michele Baker said either way, they would have to be assessed to reimburse the county’s reserve fund. “If state funds are available, and Rep. (Richard) Corcoran is working to get state funds, then the assessment would go down.”
The other advantage of using the site to alleviate flooding is that it may allow the county to spread the cost among more homeowners than the 1,600 in the proposed assessment district.
“All I ask is that I believe the most benefit residents will get is through stormwater, so that needs to be the first and biggest priority of this land,” Commissioner Henry Wilson said.
In other business, commissioners are considering a new “tobacco-free” hiring policy. Anyone hired after Oct. 1 would have to sign an affidavit swearing they are nonsmokers. They couldn’t reach consensus on how to treat current employees.
Under the proposal, current employees would be grandfathered in but could not smoke while on duty.
“I have some concerns about that,” Commissioner Ted Schrader said. “I know that has raised the ire of certain employees.”
The policy stops short of eliminating smoking on all county property but would establish designated smoking areas at each location.
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and clerk of court have similar policies in place.