NEW PORT RICHEY — It took the threat of a lawsuit last year for Pasco commissioners to approve the permit for the Oaks at Riverside, a controversial apartment complex on Amazon Drive. But they may have found a way to stop the project after all — by opening the county’s wallet.
Late last year, Commissioner Kathryn Starkey reached out to the developer, Chris Scherer, and asked if he’d be willing to sell the 41.5-acre tract to the county. He agreed, and has quietly been negotiating with the county’s Real Estate office for the last month.
Scherer said he gave his asking price to the county last week but he wouldn’t discuss the number publicly. He bought the property in 2007 for $1.5 million but has also paid for architectural plans, legal fees, permitting costs and multiple drainage studies.
“I gave them my appraisal and evaluation of the project as a whole. I haven’t heard back from them,” he said. “If we can have a meeting of the minds, then they can buy the parcel for the benefit of the community.”
The county is required to get two appraisals, and is waiting for the second. Real estate negotiations are exempt from state public records laws.
The site in question was zoned for multifamily housing in 1981, but it is surrounded by hundreds of single family homes. Scherer has already applied for his initial permit for The Oaks at Riverside. The current apartment complex plan calls for 102 units in six, two-story buildings, and features that include a clubhouse, pool, playground, park, and seven garage buildings.
In the meantime, Scherer filed his permit application the second phase of the complex — another 138 units. “I need to keep my options open,” he said. “Impact fees are going up, and I want to get going before they increase.”
When she first raised the idea, Starkey suggested the county acquire the parcel as a neighborhood park or for stormwater retention and assess area homeowners - who fought for years against the apartment development - to recover the costs.
But that choice isn’t going over well with the residents. Bill Gillies, who formed the ‘We Are 5533 Strong’ opposition group, said homeowners shouldn’t have to pick up the tab.
“I feel personally that this was an error that was made years ago,” he said. “So we feel like the county needs to step up now and correct this mistake.”
Tax Collector Mike Fasano, who took up the neighbors’ cause, said he commends the commissioners for trying to find a solution but it would be unfair if the residents had to bear the cost. “I think the county has the money to purchase this property, but let’s not give the guy who created this monster the opportunity to profit off the situation,” Fasano said.
Commissioner Henry Wilson suggested the county use reserve funds to buy the property, rezone it for single family homes, and resell it to another private developer. But other commissioners were reluctant to dip into reserves.
County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder also advised against that tactic, saying it creates to many legal complications. “I was very comfortable with the county acquiring the property as a park or for stormwater and then do a special assessment because we could show the special benefit,” he told the commissioners at their Jan. 28 meeting.
“You would still have to determine there’s a public purpose in acquiring the property and then reselling it on the market,” he said. “If we were setting a lawsuit because you didn’t want to give them (a permit for) multifamily, yes you could compensate them for the loss. This is because of actions that were taken by the Board of Commissioners 20 years ago when they approved incompatible zoning.”
Wilson said it wouldn’t be feasible to designate the land as a park because the county would be responsible for maintaining it. If the county used its stormwater fund to buy the land, commissioners could assess the entire drainage basin - instead of the immediate neighborhood - to spread the costs. But that presents problems, too.
Wilson said the land doesn’t provide enough stormwater retention to offer a “significant improvement” to the flood-prone area. He’s waiting for the results of a watershed study before committing to buy the property. “I don’t want to make a rash decision,” he said.