Florida developer overcomes water and wildlife issues in Pasco County.

By Alison Rice

Given the growth boom in central Florida, plans for a new community by Tampa-based developer Devco IV would seem to warrant barely a notice. But as the first large development west of U.S. 41, the 852-acre Oakstead generated big questions about water and wildlife in Pasco County.

"It was one of the first real controversies," says Barbara Wilhite, chief assistant county attorney. "There's always controversy, but this was one of the few that made it to a [law]suit."

Public Challenges

Thanks to its easy commute to Tampa, Pasco has become an appealing place to build and buy homes. From 1990 to 2000, the county's population jumped 22.6 percent to 344,765 residents, according to the U.S. Census--an increase just below Florida's 23.5 percent growth rate.

With that growth has come increased demand on Pasco's infrastructure, from roads and schools to water and open space, pressures that exploded after the Oakstead property, formerly a cattle farm, was rezoned for development in 1999. "The citizens were just up in arms," says Samuel P. Steffey II, growth management administrator for the county.

In response, Pasco reduced Oakstead's density, eliminating 160,000 square feet of neighborhood commercial space and downsizing the community from 1,599 to 1,200 homes.

But that wasn't enough for Citizens for Sanity, an anti-sprawl group that sued the county (but not the developer) over Oakstead. While water and roads remained a public concern, the lawsuit itself focused on wildlife issues, arguing that the county's approval process failed to incorporate the very wildlife protection policies noted in its comprehensive plan.

Concerned about delays, the developer voluntarily joined the legal fight. "We were anxious to get started," says Donald Buck, Devco's president, who believed the additional legal help would resolve the issue more quickly.

Less than a year later, Devco settled the Citizens for Sanity suit itself, agreeing to create a wildlife corridor for bobcats, coyotes, otters, and other small mammals on the Oakstead property.

To the developer, getting involved in the legal challenge seemed like the best solution to the problem, considering the costs of postponing the $30 million project. "In the scope and size of what we were spending on the development, [the legal fees weren't] a great deal of money," Buck says. "In the scope of the interest on $30 million, it wasn't that much."

Despite the delays, Oakstead remained attractive to builders, which Devco attributes to its reputation for quality and the site's proximity to the new Suncoast Parkway. The development will feature a mix of product, entry-level to luxury, from local and national builders, including Pulte, Mercedes, Rutenberg, and Lennar.

"We knew it would be a dynamite location," says Larry Peebles, president of Lennar's Tampa Bay division, which is building 160 homes starting in the $120s at Oakstead. "It was the first property to go out there, and we wanted to be there early."

Water Works

Devco had another issue at Oakstead: water.

Just as Florida's population has exploded, years of drought have led to water use restrictions and raised public concern about new development. Yet local land use decisions traditionally have remained separate from water supply issues, especially if a community will be tapping into public water and sewer.

"Tampa Bay Water is required to supply water to its member governments," explains David Bracciano, demand management coordinator for Tampa Bay Water, which provides water wholesale to Pasco County. "It's not going to affect the pace of growth."

This disconnect between land and water use has worried state leaders, who have called for moratoriums on new building. None have passed, but builders and developers remain watchful.

"There's a great deal of water in Florida," says Jim Bowen, president of Pulte's West Florida division, which is building 109 entry-level homes at Oakstead. "It's just a matter of getting it to the right places."

It's also a matter of using water wisely. "Everyone thinks we're using all the water, but we have water for the houses" at Oakstead, Buck says. "What we don't have water for is the landscaping."

Florida yards and gardens soak up just as much if not more water than the houses they surround. According to Bracciano, an outdoor sprinkling system uses between 2,000 and 2,500 gallons every time it's turned on--and 30 percent is wasted. Yet failing to water can be just as expensive. At another Devco community in Pasco, the drought cost the developer $150,000 in plants.

At Oakstead, though, the developer will do things differently. By using drought-resistant native plants and turf, Devco expects to reduce both plant loss and water waste. Plants will be arranged based on their watering needs, and a zoned irrigation system will provide proper watering to each area.

It represents a new approach to lawns and yards in Pasco County, which recently revised its landscaping ordinance to limit water-guzzling turf at new homes. The community will also have a reclaimed water system, which provides treated wastewater for plant irrigation, lowering water bills while reducing the pressure on the county's potable water supplies. (It will also garner Devco a break on impact fees. Normally $2,056 per house, the water-sewer fee will drop by $500 thanks to the reclaimed system.)

Reclaimed water can't meet all the demand; it requires anywhere from four to six homes to generate enough reclaimed water to serve one house. But it does make a difference. According to Doug Bramlett, Pasco's assistant county administrator for utility services, homes that draw on reclaimed water require 70 percent less drinking water than homes without such systems.

To builders, such environmental benefits can easily turn into selling features. "It's going to play out well for the image of the community," Pulte's Bowen says of Oakstead's water-sensitive landscaping. "We plan to promote and talk about it, because it's been an issue in the past droughts."

--Alison Rice is senior contributing editor.