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Explosion in paradise

Families are flocking to Pasco, the nation's 100th fastest-growing county, with its tolerable traffic, lower taxes and fast-fading rural feel. Predicted 2020 population: half a million.

By JAMES THORNER
Published February 15, 2004

When April and Thomas Neudenberger decided to flee the cold climes of Pittsburgh for the sunny shores of Florida, Pinellas County didn't cut it.

After a layover along the coast near St. Petersburg, the 30-something couple and their two preschoolers decided to build their nest in Oakstead in Land O'Lakes.

The traffic is tolerable. Pasco County property taxes are half of what they were in Pennsylvania. And a rural feel survives in Land O'Lakes.

"Indian Rocks was just so congested," said April Neudenberger, darting maternal glances as her kids romped on the jungle gym at the Oakstead clubhouse. "It's still country up here, but it's also a suburb with things to do."

With the influx of thousands of new families like the Neudenbergers, Pasco's future will include a lot more suburb and a lot less country.

Need proof?

Pasco set a record for housing starts in 2003, issuing 5,883 permits for single-family homes, shattering the previous record of 4,826 starts from 1978.

The census bureau labeled Pasco's population the 100th fastest growing when measured against all 3,141 counties in the United States.

The home of 344,000 people in 2000 is expected to swell to that of 500,000 in 2020.

In a broad 20-mile swath from Trinity to the west to Wesley Chapel to the east, developers have proposed more than 50,000 homes over the next 15 years. That's half the estimated supply of lots in the Tampa Bay area.

Shopping centers will follow. At least 12-million square feet of commercial development is on the books in central Pasco alone. That's room enough for 120 Wal-Marts, eight regional malls or 240 average-sized supermarkets.

Pasco has found itself at the right place at the right time.

There's simply not enough land left in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to satisfy the demands of the housing market, pumped up by the Tampa Bay area's relatively strong job growth. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater market bucked national trends by creating about 13,000 jobs last year.

Other Pasco selling points include plentiful housing choices, good schools, relatively uncongested commuter highways and lower property taxes.

"It's a nice way of life down here to raise a family," said Jennifer Miller, who moved with her husband and kids to Trinity in June. "In Connecticut we couldn't afford a house like we bought here."

Buyers like Miller aren't in the market for a doublewide or a two-bedroom bungalow, styles that once made up the bulk of the county's housing market, catering as it did to retirees.

The average new home price through November of last year was $184,650. Seven Oaks in Wesley Chapel and Wilderness Lake Preserve in Land O'Lakes are among recent projects to pour millions into clubhouses, sending average home prices over the $200,000 mark.

A new neighborhood in the Trinity community kicked it up another notch. The Champion's Club will offer homes starting at $400,000 in Mediterranean-themed villages with 368 homes. Top-of-the-line houses, at $2-million apiece, will be nothing short of mansions.

At Seven Oaks, mature pines rise above putting-green quality grass at the Club at Seven Oaks. A two-story corkscrew water slide plunges into one of the four in-ground pools. Residents snuggled in easy chairs inside the clubhouse, equipped with a cafe/reading room and a 30-seat tiered movie theater.

Retailers want to make those residents their customers. The region's newest sports stadium, an international tennis center in Wesley Chapel, and its newest mall, a 1.5-million-square-foot spread at Interstate 75 and State Road 56, are among the biggest.

Sam's Club, Wal-Mart's warehouse chain, is opening its first store east of U.S. 19 at the gates of Seven Oaks on SR 56. A book store the size of a Borders or Barnes & Noble is considering the same site.

Home Depot's first east/center Pasco outlet, at Eiland Boulevard and SR 54, is opening early this year. Even Seattle-based coffee roaster Starbucks will dispense cups-o-joe in Trinity and Wesley Chapel.

Plateau in housing growth predicted, but not before thousands of homes are built

Housing starts have risen steadily the past five years, from 2,931 in 2000, to 3,859 in 2001, to 4,786 in 2002 and then 5,883 last year.

Some in the industry - including Don Buck, developer of thousands of homes in Meadow Pointe and Oakstead in the central Pasco suburbs - expect housing growth soon to plateau. Still, even at current levels, that portends an enormous spread of block and stucco.

Scheduled to break ground this year is Connerton New Town Development. About 8,677 homes - a quarter of them throwbacks with alleys, porches and detached garages - would surround a compact and walkable town center east of U.S. 41. The developer is Terrabrook, which built Tampa's Westchase neighborhood.

A couple of miles southwest of Connerton in Land O'Lakes, Newland Communities plans 7,000 homes at part of the Bexley Ranch. South of Bexley, a string of developments on SR 54 between U.S. 41 and the Suncoast Parkway promise another 10,000 rooftops.

The country-to-suburban makeover facing Wesley Chapel could be even more dramatic. Seven Oaks and Meadow Pointe each promise 3,000 to 4,000 more homes in what's turned out to be an extension of New Tampa.

The wild card is the Wiregrass Ranch. At 5,000 acres, it dominates the heart of Wesley Chapel, sprawling east of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. To be bisected by an extension of SR 56, Wiregrass will likely hold more than 5,000 homes and mall-sized shopping hubs.

The last frontier is Curley Road, which twists its way from SR 54 in Wesley Chapel to State Road 52 in San Antonio. Developers have scurried to ink contracts with ranchers such as the Eppersons. County officials project a six-lane Curley cocooned by another 15,000 homes.

County's unstoppable growth will mean building 12 new schools over 10 years

The county's growth appears so like an unstoppable locomotive that critics of suburbanization concede their task is mostly to blunt its rough edges.

A one-cent-on-the-dollar increase in the Pasco sales tax (from 6 percent to 7 percent) is on the March 9 ballot. Since much of the money will pay for schools and roads - two selling points for home buyers - the development industry generally supports the tax.

School administrators figure they will have to build 12 schools over 10 years to handle an annual surge of 2,000 new students.

Wesley Chapel Elementary is telling. It opened in August 2002 with 776 students. By the start of this school year, enrollment streaked past 1,000. Rows of portable classrooms are the quick-fix answer.

Trying to make growth pay for itself, Pasco will rachet up impact fees this year to $8,525 per new single-family home. The one-time fees, built into a new home's price, pay for roads, schools, utilities, fire stations, libraries and parks.

But even the home price jump won't deter the hordes buying up Pasco lots. The Neudenbergers are sufficiently attached to Oakstead that they're thinking about moving up to a bigger house.

There's a two-story Mediterranean house with a barrel-tiled roof that could have their name on it.

"We love the San Remo model," Mrs. Neudenberger said. "But we can't wait long. Only two lots left."

[Last modified February 15, 2004, 01:15:45]


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