Road-funding figures hazy

The county is considering a $12-million payment from the builder.

Published April 8, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - Planners released a draft of the development order for the proposed Hickory Hill subdivision last week: 38 pages of dense policy language covering everything from water use to lighting.

But on page 29, under the heading "Transportation," county staffers had printed a small cartoon image of a speeding car and the following caption: "This site is still under construction."

The county and the project's developer, Sierra Properties LLC of Tampa, have agreed on many points, said Ron Pianta, county planning director.

They have decided on the list of improvements to local roads - including Lockhart and Church roads - that Sierra must complete to serve the development: 1,750 houses, a shopping center and three golf courses on 2,800 acres in hilly, rural Spring Lake.

They know Sierra's contributions to improve State Road 50 and Interstate 75 will not be as large as some planners had anticipated last year.

They don't know, however, how much Sierra will pay for all the road improvements and when that money will be due.

Instead, the county is considering a proposal from Sierra that includes a lump-sum payment of $12-million for road improvements.

"That's almost double what we're obligated to provide the county," said Sebring Sierra, the developer's vice president of operations. "We want there to be no doubt that Hickory Hill is paying much more than its fair share."

They have yet to convince the county of that, Pianta said.

"They proposed it. We said it is something we'd consider, but we have made no commitments one way or another," he said.

Both sides, he said, are trying to complete the agreement as soon as possible so commissioners will have time to review it before April 26.

On that day, the commission will decide whether to grant a change to the comprehensive plan to allow the development of the property, the largest remaining block of agricultural land in the county.

The commission will also decide whether to approve the development order that is required of large projects such as Hickory Hill, classified as developments of regional impact.

Here is a list of the proposed improvements:

- Bringing Church and Lockhart roads up to the county standard for collector roads, including new shoulders.

- Increasing the length of turn lanes on SR 50 leading to Lockhart, and building a traffic signal.

- Building turn lanes and a traffic signal at the intersection of Church and Spring Lake Highway.

- Contributing to upgrades of the SR 50 and I-75 interchange.

The total cost of these projects will be $8.6-million, according to Sierra's proposal. The developer's share of that is calculated by comparing how much traffic the subdivision will generate at its peak hour to the total capacity of the improved roads.

That, according to Sierra, means its share will come to $5.7-million. Everything beyond that, the company has said, should be deducted from its required impact fee payment to the county because it adds to the capacity of the county's road network.

Even so, Sebring Sierra added, the $12-million payment will more than pay for improvements, especially because it covers the project only through the time the 1,200th house is built; the developer will still owe the county for impact fees for the 550 houses built after that point.

But Pianta said the county has identified two potential concerns with the Hickory Hill proposal: The full amount of the $12-million payment will not be due until the 1,200th house is completed on a project that, according to the development order, is expected to take 20 to 25 years to build out.

Also, Sierra proposes to account for inflation by tying increases in the $12-million payment to the consumer price index, and capping this annual increase at 3 percent.

In recent years, road prices have increased at a much faster rate, doubling - and in some cases tripling - between 2004 and 2006, traffic experts said. Such an increase would leave Sierra's contributions far short of the project's impact.

Some of the pressures driving this rapid increase, such as the high demand for materials during the construction boom, have eased in the past year, Sebring Sierra said.

"We've recently seen prices start to come down," he said.

But one factor for higher road prices is not likely to change, DOT officials said last year when they announced the cancellation of dozens of projects due to rising costs: Asphalt is a petroleum product, meaning its price is likely to climb steadily in the coming decades.

Also last year, county transportation planning coordinator Dennis Dix said the cost of road improvements to the entire development district near SR 50 and I-75 would be about $782-million.

Hickory Hill's share, he said at the time, could be between 15 and 20 percent of that amount.

The biggest part of that would be for improving state and federal highways; as it stands now, Sierra will pay $1.9-million for improvements to these roads.

Two things have changed since last year, Sebring Sierra said. The improvements to the I-75 and SR 50 interchange have been drastically scaled back. Also, he said, the stretch of SR 50 west of I-75, where Lockhart joins the state highway, is well under maximum capacity.

So, unlike subdivisions on more crowded sections east of the interstate, Hickory Hill is not required by the state to contribute to the widening of SR 50, he said.

Even if this payment satisfies the state, said Sindra Ridge, the leader of opposition to Hickory Hill, it doesn't address the real strain the project will bring to local roads.

"That's ridiculous," she said when she heard about Sierra's obligation to the state road network. "They ought to be paying 20 percent."

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or 352754-6116.

Editor's note: This is the first of three reports about the proposed Hickory Hill subdivision that will appear in the Hernando Times before plans for the project come before the Hernando County Commission on April 26.