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Developer may donate land and build schools, too

The New River developer plans to use impact fees to help cover his costs. His land gift also would include 160 acres for a public park.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002

WESLEY CHAPEL -- In deals that could save Pasco County taxpayers a couple of million dollars, the developer of New River is considering paying out of pocket for a regional park and two schools north of State Road 54.

Swiss-born businessman Beat Kahli said he plans to hand over 160 acres for a regional park and additional land for schools at the 1,800-acre development between Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills.

But he wants to go even further: Kahli said he might build the public schools himself and help pay off the debt with $1,694-per-home school impact fees that home buyers at New River would pay over the years.

It's a novel approach to building schools in Pasco, and intrigued school officials have loaned Kahli construction drawings and financing documents for Chasco Elementary and Middle schools, two recent projects whose size would fit at New River.

Although many of the details are still unsettled, a similar arrangement could lead to a public park at New River.

"We believe a certain generosity early on in the project comes back to you," Kahli said this week after he pitched his park plans at a meeting with County Commissioner Pat Mulieri and County Administrator John Gallagher.

Where the taxpayer could see savings is in land purchases. If the county and School Board agree to his terms, Kahli would give 160 acres for a public park and more than 30 acres for schools without charge.

With landowners charging Pasco $11,000 per acre for park land and $20,000 per acre for schools, county officials are thrilled at the prospect of more than $2-million in free land. School district planning director Mike Rapp said Kahli's apparent generosity was refreshing after the usual arm twisting with developers.

"You know that old adage: If it seems too good to be true, maybe it is," Rapp said. "But on first pass ... this seems very promising."

Gallagher said he first got word of a park plan about 11/2 years ago, and Kahli has promised to come up with a solid offer in the next few weeks. Even though the county is looking to buy 140 acres near Boyette Road for its next giant park, Gallagher said the New River site would be a welcome addition.

"I'd hate to give up any land with all the people moving in. We're going to need it all," he said.

Kahli said he plans to hand over the park land to a nonprofit foundation, as he did at his other big Florida project, Avalon Park in Orlando. Then the county could spend park impact fees of $892-per-home on amenities such as a soccer field, trails, barbecue grills and picnic tables.

Rapp gives Kahli credit for shrewdness: Schools and parks are two amenities home buyers seek above all others.

By giving away land -- and persuading the government to pump impact fee dollars into that land -- Kahli ensures his project gets the goodies before other up-and-coming subdivisions.

Kahli doesn't dispute that his strategy is to give his project an edge. Builders have started on about 150 of what will be 2,000 to 4,000 homes in New River.

"I would hope down the road ... our school would be built a little bit earlier than planned,' he said.

He views his philosophy as different from that of the Oakstead development in Land O'Lakes, where developers promised the School Board land but demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation.

"For us it's a good investment. A park is not that expensive if you have the land," Kahli said. "This is one area where residents' and developers' interests match."

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