Schools, wetland bank to get land

Published May 16, 2007

WESLEY CHAPEL - The Pasco school district and a wetland mitigation bank are poised to carve up the spoils of D.R. Horton's abortive deal to develop the 611-acre Grantham Ranch.

Other builders are also circling the property, a broker said.

School officials confirmed Monday they plan to buy 127 acres at the former ranch along Old Pasco Road, adding to 88 they already hold there.

"We're not technically under contract because we haven't signed yet, but there's a verbal agreement, " said Ray Gadd, the school district's chief land buyer. "We're still looking at some of the wetlands issues out there."

The plan initially was to put a high school there, Gadd said.

But the additional space has opened up possibilities of middle and elementary schools joining a "master-planned" school community at the site.

"There are also future needs that don't involve schools, " including district warehouses, bus parking and repair shops, and maintenance facilities, Gadd said.

There's not enough space for schools in central Pasco.

Many middle and high schools here are a fifth more crowded than they're supposed to be. Elementary schools like Quail Hollow and Wesley Chapel run at nearly double their capacity, according to district data.

Half of the county's school growth is in Wesley Chapel, Gadd said.

"We like that area because it's right up against the interstate, " he said.

The county also plans to expand Old Pasco Road to four lanes.

The district's tentative agreement, at $35, 000 an acre, puts the bid at $4.4-million.

Another 264 acres at the ranch are under contract to go to a mitigation bank, said Bill Buffington, the TriStar Realty broker representing sellers Nancy Grantham and Dickie Geiger.

Mitigation banks are private entities that restore and preserve wetlands, then sell wetland "credits" to anyone who needs to compensate for taking wetlands in other areas. State law created the compensation system in 1984.

Buffington declined Monday to say which bank contracted to buy the Grantham tract.

He said he is negotiating with an undisclosed number of home builders to develop the balance of the ranch.

Confidentiality deals bar him from naming them, but he said they were "larger-lot builders ...with other projects already in Pasco."

Horton, the nation's largest home builder, ended a two-year pursuit of Grantham Ranch late last year. But the rezoning Horton won for the site bolsters its appeal to future developers.

The residential project is smaller now. In 2004, Horton proposed 1, 425 homes. Last December, the County Commission approved it for 474. The latest plans may see just 380, Buffington said.

Because of fears of flooding, neighbors had fought Horton's plans. But the lower density of homes and the wetland preservation should relieve some of those concerns, Buffington said.

"We are working toward a solution that I don't see how the community could not be proud of, " he said.

Times staff writer Jeff Solochek contributed to this story. Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.