A dirty business at the bottom of Happy Hill

By Times editorial
Published March 16, 2007

A private developer is turning a mountain into a mole hill. Unfortunately, the picturesque vista along Happy Hill Road in east Pasco is the victim in a convoluted blame game that allowed developers to skirt appropriate scrutiny from Pasco County and Dade City.

At issue is the JES Properties Inc. work site for Summit View, a planned 406-home project east of Happy Hill and south of St. Joe Road. The property is within Dade City limits, but access to and from the property is along a county road.

Dade City does not have a local ordinance governing dirt mining. Pasco County does, but its requirements can be circumvented because of the site's location within the city.

Huge dirt mounds are on the property now and dirt-hauling trucks had been coming and going from the property at the rate of one every two minutes, according to county observations. The developer agreed recently to stop. Developers have said the site work is required to bring the planned home roofs in line with treetops because of complaints the houses would rise above the hill's peak. Karla Owens, city attorney for Dade City, also said the developer is meeting its Southwest Florida Water Management District permit requirements.

Here's a more pertinent point of view: By hauling 2.2-million cubic yards of dirt from the property, the developer stands to gross roughly $25-million, Commissioner Ted Schrader estimated. That's some site work. Too bad the neighbors and motorists will have to tolerate hundreds of trucks a day leaving the property for the next two years and the end result will be a hill 25 feet shorter than when development started.

The cost to the developer? A measly $400,000 to Pasco County to cover road improvements. No wonder some commissioners want to yank permission for the developer to use county roads. Pasco issued a right of way use permit believing the access was for the eventual residents of Summit View, not for a for-profit dirt-mining operation. The little detail of excavating 2.2-million cubic yards of dirt was not included on the paperwork submitted to the county.

"We issued a permit under false pretenses," said Commissioner Michael Cox. It's hard to disagree with his logic.

"It's arguable that maybe we made a mistake," Owens said. No kidding.

Dade City does not have a local ordinance governing dirt mining operations. The city doesn't want to regulate mines because it doesn't want to encourage their existence within the city. That may have made sense years ago, but as Dade City's municipal boundaries grow through annexation, the city should adopt rules similar to Pasco County's or ban dirt-mining altogether as an improper land use within the city limits.

Pasco County, meanwhile, needs to improve its communication with the municipal governments attempting to grow via annexations. Future right of way use permit applications should include all documentation that has been submitted to the city governments.

JES and Pasco are now negotiating new conditions for the company's permit to use county roads. The county can't prohibit dirt mining outside its jurisdiction, but it shouldn't hesitate to be aggressive in its demands for this amended permit. The private sector's bottom line is an appropriate place to seek mitigation for the top of Happy Hill.