When Ernie Monaco, the director of planning for Pasco County, tossed out the idea — during a meeting to discuss borders — to representatives from the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce (WCCC) last month that they might want to revisit the idea of incorporation, he got the attention of Russ Miller.
“I was surprised to hear that from a county employee,’’ said Miller, often credited with creating the WCCC, although he says he was one of six co-founders, “just the loudest.”
The mention of incorporation took Miller, who was at the meeting to discuss Wesley Chapel’s boundaries, on a trip down memory lane.
In 2003, Miller and fellow WCCC member Jim Williams led a charge to incorporate Wesley Chapel, hoping to turn the quickly-growing Census Designated Place (CDP) into a full-fledged city, with its own government and its own rules, particularly in the areas of land use and zoning.
The incorporated municipality (which can be referred to as a city, town or village) of Wesley Chapel would have extended eight miles east and west from Cypress Creek Rd. to Morris Bridge Rd., and eight miles north and south from County Line Rd. to Elam Rd. (which is roughly three miles north of S.R. 54).
The proposed municipality would have included all of the developments in Wesley Chapel at the time — Lexington Oaks, Meadow Pointe, Northwood, Quail Hollow, New River Township, Saddlebrook and Seven Oaks.
Miller, who lived in Wesley Chapel from 1981-2009 before moving to Palatka, hired a firm to help with a feasibility study.
The effort, which at the time would have taken 11 percent of Pasco County’s land area and included 28,000 residents and 10,000 homes, didn’t get very far and ultimately failed.
Miller said the developers and local daily newspapers were against it, and time was short to get a referendum approved ahead of the 2004 elections.
Also, the idea of another layer of property taxes (to fund a potential city government) did not appeal to some residents, especially since Pasco was already requesting a 1-cent increase in the county sales tax to be on the 2004 ballot.
Even the WCCC effectively came out against incorporation.
“We were just a group of lay people who saw a benefit in incorporating Wesley Chapel,’’ Miller said. “But, we didn’t have the money to fight the developers and the people in the community who were against it, and we got negative press. I have people still say to me, ‘Why did you stop?’ Now, they’re sorry.”
Miller says he just recently threw out all of the paperwork from that failed attempt. However, he still thinks incorporation is the way to go, and doing so would surely settle the long-standing border dispute with Lutz-Land O’Lakes.
“It’s never bad to control your own destiny,’’ Miller says. “Residents get a total say on how the community’s future will look. Now, where is the power? The county government. And where are they located? West Pasco controls it.”
Could a Wesley Chapel incorporation effort succeed today?
In Pasco, 450,000 of the county’s 490,000 residents live in unincorporated areas, meaning decisions about their land, police and schools are made by the county government.
Pasco County only has six municipalities: the cities of New Port Richey, Port Richey, San Antonio, Dade City, Zephyrhills and the town of Saint Leo.
In the 2010 census, Wesley Chapel’s population was listed at 44,092, a number that has grown and at the time was already nearly three times greater than the next largest city (New Port Richey, 14,934) and more populous than all of the other cities and towns put together.
“Had we succeeded, Wesley Chapel (today) would be the biggest and most powerful city in the entire county,’’ Miller laments.
While the WCCC came out against the incorporation efforts in 2003, none of those members are among the more than 500 the Chamber claims today.
“We don’t have an official stance,’’ says WCCC CEO Hope Allen, but she said it may be revisited by the Chamber’s current Board of Directors.
Pulling off incorporation won’t necessarily be any easier today. It takes money and lawyers, a feasibility study that can take up to two years to complete and will need the support of the local State legislative delegation, who would then bring it to the full state legislature, which could then approve it through a special act and put it on a referendum on the ballot.
“I saw an awful lot of interest from the chamber leaders two weeks ago,’’ Miller says about the Feb. 19 meeting. “If they were serious, and wanted to spend the money to promote it, I’d give it a 50-50 chance. But, it’s got to be sold to the residents. And, you need a cast iron stomach and the financial wherewithal to fight the battles.
He adds, “I absolutely would like to live long enough to see the day when Wesley Chapel is incorporated!”