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Pasco home to 5-million? County has a plan for it

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


A harmless exchange a couple of weeks ago between Pasco County Commission Chairman Steve Simon and county Administrator John Gallagher yielded a jarring revelation.

Simon gazed the length of the commissioner's dais and casually asked Gallagher: Don't some development projections in Pasco contemplate a population of 5-million?

The rest of the conversation was irrelevant for my purposes. One fact eclipsed all others: WE ACTUALLY HAVE PLANS HERE IN PASCO FOR 5-MILLION RESIDENTS. IT'S ON PAPER IN SOMEONE'S FILING CABINET.

Keep in mind that Pasco, which some environmental activists insist is already overcrowded, has, by the 2000 Census, only 344,765 residents, up from 281,131 in 1990.

Also keep in mind that 5-million is more people than live in any U.S. city except New York -- more than Chicago, more than the city of Los Angeles, more than Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Pinellas County, with about 40 percent of the land area of Pasco, is just shy of the 1-million population mark.

I'll admit the 5-million figure for Pasco is unrealistic. Simon got the number by extrapolating from the county's comprehensive plan, the document that charts future development.

Such wild growth assumes developers will go whole hog and build out Pasco's available land to full density. Even Simon says that won't happen based on current trends.

Pasco can't match Pinellas' big draw, its sandy beaches. Lax rules that allowed haphazard development along the coast after World War II are much stricter today.

Developers no longer can play Paul Bunyan with cypress trees. More of Pasco than Pinellas is off-limits to developers as conservation land.

"We'll never be a Pinellas," Gallagher said last week, a day after the government released census numbers for 2000. "Maybe our cap will be around a million people."

Maybe. It's also possible Pasco will eventually house 1.5-million or 2-million residents. That still sounds like an awful lot of people.

Observe recent trends:

Last year brought the approval of Connerton, which if fully built will have 15,177 homes. Even at 3 people per household -- mom, dad and one kid -- that's 45,000 people on what is now an almost unpopulated plain.

Ditto for three developments just getting started in Wesley Chapel: New River, Saddlebrook Village and Meadow Pointe III and IV.

Combined, those three neighborhoods promise between 10,000 and 15,000 new homes. Do the math and you'll get 30,000 to 45,000 more people.

Owners of the Cannon Ranch in San Antonio say they'll build 6,700 homes southeast of Interstate 75 and State Road 52. Chalk up 20,000 more residents.

An additional 7,000 homes have hit the drawing boards on State Road 54 between the Suncoast Parkway and U.S. 41.

Developers plan a 1-million-square-foot mall near U.S. 41 and SR 54 sometime after 2010, supposing Pasco will have sufficient credit-card-clutching hordes to fill the stores.

Ten-thousand here, 10,000 there, and pretty soon you're talking about serious population growth.

Faced with 23 percent population growth from 1990 to 2000, Pasco officials are making noise about smoothing the rough edges of suburbanization.

In February, commissioners approved school impact fees of $1,694 per home. The county also will assess new homeowners the cost of libraries, parks, roads and fire stations.

Pressure is building for developers to constrain home construction to assemble a cross-county wildlife corridor.

Will these measures slow the passage of Homo sapiens into Pasco? Probably not.

Let Gallagher have the last word: "I don't think for a couple of thousand bucks people are going to stop moving to Pasco County."

- James Thorner covers county government and growth and development in Pasco. He can be reached at (813) 226-3458 or thorner@sptimes.com.

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