Wiregrass fed up with delays

Published May 9, 2007

DADE CITY - Months of acrimonious negotiations behind closed doors spilled into the open at the County Commission Tuesday, as the attorney for Wiregrass Ranch sparred with county officials on road-building costs and park requirements.

"Despite my continued efforts, we have been unable in four months to get to a development order, or even a work session, " said Joel Tew, as he protested the county's postponement of his hearing until June 5.

Further delays, Tew said, would threaten the $105-million Shops at Wiregrass mall.

"We have a lifestyle center that we're in danger of losing, " Tew said, using retailers' term for the mall. "We have a developer that's ordered steel and it's just sitting out there in a building."

Brokers say tenant contracts at malls usually come with an expected delivery date, and if the developer cannot meet the date, the contracts could be in trouble.

But Wiregrass still needs the county's green light, and negotiations have reached an impasse.

Out of a record $1.8-billion in road improvements that the county wants from the 5, 000-acre proposal, Wiregrass' developers are being asked to provide $627-million - also a record.

The two sides are still millions of dollars apart, County Administrator John Gallagher said.

Emphasizing the county's strained resources, Gallagher said Pasco can pony up just $181-million for its share of Wiregrass' road-building costs through the year 2022.

If roads are not built, the giant development, with 12, 500 proposed homes at Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and State Road 56, is expected to spawn traffic tie-ups stretching well into Hillsborough County.

"At the first workshop, you told us all these wonderful things that you are doing, but we never addressed the transportation issues that we're now touching on, " said commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand.

Regional planners took 18 months to give Wiregrass the go-ahead in December, commissioner Michael Cox said. The county's so far taken about five.

"This is the largest project that we've had, " Cox said. "It's very important that we get it right. I believe we are moving this thing along at a pace that's acceptable."

Be careful, Tew responded.

"The lifestyle center is going to be gone, just like Moffitt was gone, " because commissioners didn't act swiftly enough, Tew said, referring to a development deal involving the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute that Pasco lost last year.

The two sides also can't agree on parks.

The law requires Wiregrass to set aside 125 acres for neighborhood parks.

Tew asked to split this into 20 acres of neighborhood parks and 105 acres for a district park. Part of Wiregrass is for active adults anyway, who may not need all those neighborhood parks, he said.

Trouble is, the county's law only relates to neighborhood parks. Officials usually ask developers to set aside additional land for district parks, which are larger facilities for more active recreation.

Commissioners Pat Mulieri and Ted Schrader leaned in favor of Tew's idea, but Gallagher said Tew needs to get an exemption hearing on this issue, as any other similar proposal would.

"I think you ought to consider what you're doing to everybody else, " Gallagher warned commissioners. "All I'm asking you to do is be consistent."

Tew's response: "Push comes to shove, I am very comfortable that we won't have a district park obligation in this application."

Hanging over the deliberations was Tew's accusation that Pasco had flouted a state law that says the county can't delay its decision on Wiregrass' application beyond 90 days after regional planners approve it.

Tew won on one count Tuesday: commissioners voted to delay Wiregrass' hearing to May 22, rather than June 5.

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at cyap@sptimes.com or 813 909-4613.