Rivalry targets money for parks
By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
Once the inseparable siblings of central Pasco County, the suburban communities of Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel have grown into increasingly estranged adults.
No one is yet talking about a family feud, but small signs of disaffection have emerged on both sides of Interstate 75.
First came the 1998 formation of the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, which lured members from Land O'Lakes' Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce.
The opening in 1999 of Wesley Chapel High School, some of whose students would have gone to Land O'Lakes High School, further weakened ties between the two communities.
Now comes what threatens to be the biggest breach to date: a rivalry to see which of the two growing suburban communities will tap the limited pool of taxpayer-supported parks money.
The latest sign of fragmentation was the formation of the Central Pasco Sports Authority. Despite its geographically inclusive name, the authority represents only teams in Land O'Lakes.
One of its main goals is to lobby for some of the money the county seems intent on spending to build parks in Wesley Chapel, said Tim Hayes, one of the founders. Hayes summed up the organization's philosophy as "strength in unity."
"We're not at war with Wesley Chapel," Hayes said last week. "Wesley Chapel needs athletic facilities. There's no doubt about that."
Nevertheless, he expressed concerns that Wesley Chapel would siphon the county's recreation impact fees, the recently approved $892-per-home assessment on each new home.
A parks study released last year called for $40-million in new parks, the first being a super-sized park in Wesley Chapel. Impact fees would pay the bulk of the cost.
Hayes insists fees paid in Land O'Lakes stay mostly in Land O'Lakes. He points to the hundreds of new homes springing up in communities such as Sable Ridge and Plantation Palms that are flooding sports leagues with aspiring athletes.
But county officials point out that for the purposes of spending the impact fees, Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel belong to the same district. Money from one can pay for parks in the other, and vice versa.
Wesley Chapel youth sports leaders said they sympathize with Land O'Lakes' predicament. Until the formation of the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association in June 2000, many kids trekked to Land O'Lakes to play soccer. About a quarter of Land O'Lakes' Little League enrollment still consists of Wesley Chapel kids.
But Tom Fitzsimons, a Wesley Chapel youth sports booster and father of four, said Land O'Lakes boasts a "wealth of riches" when it comes to sports, riches his community can scarcely dream of.
Witness the Land O'Lakes' Recreation Center on Collier Parkway, which aside from the sports fields has a giant swimming pool, gymnasium and basketball and tennis courts. And then there's the Land O'Lakes Community Center on U.S. 41, providing even more room to roam.
"They've got two parks up there, and we've got none," Fitzsimons said. "I'm kind of dumbfounded by their position."
Dan Johnson, the assistant county administrator who oversees parks in Pasco, also questions whether Land O'Lakes should feel deprived.
Pasco could spend close to $1-million this year to expand Land O'Lakes sports fields. Deals are under way to buy the land from the school district, next to the community center and across from Pine View Middle School.
"Land O'Lakes' money's not going anywhere else. It's staying right there," Johnson said last week.
Johnson cautioned communities about playing the game of "who subsidized whom" when it comes to parks.
He pointed to the county bond issue in 1986 through which the county taxpayers as a whole paid for the Land O'Lakes' Recreation Center.
"If you look what the population was back then . . . maybe west Pasco and east Pasco helped subsidize Land O'Lakes," Johnson said.
Johnson said although it's Wesley Chapel's turn to benefit, Land O'Lakes won't lose in the exchange: Building fields in Wesley Chapel will relieve crowding in Land O'Lakes.
Hayes and his colleagues have latched onto one method of financing Wesley Chapel parks: have residents there pay their own way with a special property tax limited to greater Wesley Chapel.
The county is exploring the idea with the tentative backing of the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association. What's an extra $10 in taxes a month if it means his kids have a place to play? Fitzsimons said.
Others aren't so sure the idea will fly, including Harry Olsen, another founder of the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association.
Wesley Chapel residents might resent paying out of pocket for parks that in other communities were paid for with general taxation, although Hayes points out that Land O'Lakes Community Center was privately built and only later taken over by the county.
"We pay for it and anybody from any other area can use it," Olsen said. "That's perfect."
To get an idea of growth in Wesley Chapel, the community's youth soccer program grew from about 300 to 400 kids over the past year. Its main practice field is a still-undeveloped shopping center site in the Meadow Pointe neighborhood.
"You've got yours. You've got facilities already," Fitzsimons said of Land O'Lakes. "We've got nothing here, and we don't know when we're going to be thrown off our practice fields."
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