Planning continues on the Orange Belt Trail — a proposed 37-mile recreational trail across Pasco County — but the project is facing resistance by property owners in East Pasco.
Residents from Dade City, Zephyrhills and Trilby turned out for a recent meeting to pose questions and voice criticism.
The proposed trail has been years in the making and the ultimate path is months away from consideration by the Pasco County Commission. As envisioned, the Orange Belt Trail will be a multi-use trail traversing the county, from Trinity to Trilby.
Pasco County officials and Orange Belt project leaders invited the public to two open house forums to discuss alternate routes and to solicit feedback on the project.
The Aug. 15 session, at the Dade City Woman’s Club, attracted a packed house of residents and community leaders.
After listening to a presentation by the project team regarding potential alignments, several members of the crowd posed fiery questions about the proposed paths.
They wanted to know what the county plans to do about the trail intersecting private properties or aligning with backyard property lines. Questions also were raised about the cost of the project and how it will be funded. Others wanted to know how the county will ensure the trail’s upkeep and security along the path.
Wiatt Bowers, project planner and consultant, and Erin Swanson, the new project manager, fielded the questions and criticism. Swanson replaced Sam Beneck, the former project manager.
“Funding for the project is coming from the Penny for Pasco fund (PFP),” Swanson told the crowd. “Other funding will come from the SUN Trail Program.”
“A project of this scope and scale — each mile of trail is most likely in the millions,” Bowers added. “There is not a set budget yet until we have the routes finalized, but the longer it is, the more expensive it will be.”
The Orange Belt Trail will, more or less, follow the path of the old railway and will link communities such as Trinity, Odessa, Land O’ Lakes, Wesley Chapel and Dade City.
It is expected to have recreational and economic opportunities along the way and will make use of the Coast-to-Coast Trail, Starkey Trail, Suncoast Trail and Withlacoochee Trail. The multi-use trail is expected to be 12 feet to 14 feet wide, and will be paved, but portions of the path also could incorporate equestrian uses.
The project has faced criticism by some for using Penny for Pasco funds, which critics say could be better spent on other projects, such as school improvements and infrastructure.
Opponents also have criticized the potential placement of the trail near homes.
Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey previously offered assurances the trail will not require involuntary taking of private property, but some residents continue to express concerns.
Some property owners pointed out that the proposed path, including the alternatives, show the trail just mere feet away from their property line. Several speakers essentially asked the project team why the county wants to build something that’s not very useful.
Others chimed in that they don’t want the trail in their backyards.
Starkey noted in February the alignment of the Orange Belt Trail, on the east side of Interstate 75, is more complicated than it is on the west side of I-75.
The project team’s presentation appeared to confirm that.
In Section C of the trail — which stretches from St. Leo north to Trilby — there are five alternative routes being considered. They are based on previous community workshops, held in December and April and additional feedback received on the project’s website and through online votes.
“We are just working on the best place to put (the trail) and where it doesn’t impact people’s properties,” Swanson said.
Project leaders encouraged those who attended the open house to continue to provide feedback online and in person. They also provided ways, besides alternate routes, the trail will tackle issues of privacy and territorial reinforcement.
The project, supposedly, will make use of natural elements, such as scenery and trees, but also sidewalks and transparent fencing.
The fencing idea got pushback from the crowd.
“We don’t want to look out and see fencing on our property that we didn’t put in,” a speaker said.
“That’s why we moved out here (to East Pasco) in the first place — to get away from a trail or fence,” another added.
Project leaders tried to reassure attendees the routes were not finalized and that’s why there were these meetings, as well as more in the near future.
“Ultimately, the build or no build will come down to your elected officials,” Bowers said. “We have seen overwhelming support for the project, but what’s best is to continue to give us your feedback.”
Criticisms also were raised by some members of the crowd regarding the lack of attendance at the meeting by Pasco County Commissioner Ron Oakley, whose district covers East Pasco, and Commissioner Starkey, who has been a staunch advocate of the trail.
Pasco County Commissioner Seth Weightman was there and spoke to many of those attending the session at length. His district covers Land O’ Lakes and Wesley Chapel.
At this point nothing about the trail is set in stone, project planners said. The goal has been to make a 37-mile crossing Pasco, but that might not happen, Bowers said.
“It is entirely possible that we get a no build,” Bowers said. “It is also entirely possible it doesn’t connect from Trinity to Trilby.”
Conversely, at the “West Side” meeting held Aug. 16 at Starkey Ranch Theatre Library in Odessa, the crowd was much smaller and calmer than its East Side counterparts.
According to Orange Belt officials, only about 50 people were in attendance, as there is only one build alternative on routes on that side of the trail.
Most people in attendance live near Tower Road, which is currently going through a Feasibility Study for possible extension and expansion, and their questions related to how the trail may integrate into the road expansion.
Commissioner Weightman raised the issue about the Orange Belt Trail during the county board’s Aug. 22 meeting. Weightman said he attended both community meetings and shared his observations.
“There’s a clear difference of opinion on the trail. Really, once you get east of Bellamy Brothers (Boulevard), folks are pretty passionate about the direction of that trail and our office has had several meetings. I encourage folks to hear what the folks that get impacted — once they get east of Bellamy Brothers, what they have to say.”
At the meeting on the west side of the county, he heard “encouraging remarks.”
Oakley said there’s been a misunderstanding on the east side of the county.
“They are thinking that we’re cutting their land in half.
“That’s not going to happen. We’re not going to condemn any of their property. “We’re not going to cut their property in half. And they need to understand that.
“The trail will be coming across the entire county.
“It’s going to be a very well-used Orange Belt Trail,” Oakley said.
Starkey added: “I talked to some business people on the east side, one, whose last name is Simpson, and he’s very excited about the opportunities that he’s going to have to put retail along the trail.
“There is no doubt that the closer you are to a trail of this type, your property values go up and it’s actually safer because there’s more eyes around to stop crime,” she said.
“I look forward to more and more discussions on this. I think it’s going to be wonderful for the county,” Starkey said.
Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said there are many potential routes.
“I think there are alternatives to make it all work out,” Mariano said.
Orange Belt Trail
Details: A proposed, continuous 37-mile multi-use trail through Pasco County, from Trinity to Trilby. Pasco County government officials are taking feedback and comments from the public to consider as they make plans for the trail’s alignment. At this point, they are considering various alternatives.
For more information or to provide feedback and comments, or to take the public survey, visit OrangeBeltTrail.com. To learn more about Pasco County Engineering Services, visit MyPas.co/3tzL8N3.
— B.C. Manion contributed to this story.
Published August 30, 2023