Draw up plans to build 530 townhouses and homes on farmland a couple of miles from downtown Brooksville. Set aside a few acres for shopping. Give it a phony, upper-class name — Covington Hill — and, presto, you've got a can't-miss business proposition.
At least a group of investors from Naples thought so. In 2006, they paid $4.5 million for 147 acres of land with those generous development approvals at the northwest corner of U.S. 98 and Yontz Road.
As evidence — if we really need it — that things have since slowed down a bit, a bank sold this property in May for $550,000.
The buyer, Tom Malouf of Tampa, is convinced we're in for a lot more than an economic slowdown. He sees a long period of housing doldrums, high unemployment and wages low enough that native-born Americans might actually be willing to do old-fashioned agricultural labor.
"We're going backwards," Malouf said.
And if you want to see this for yourself, if you want to actually witness our recent economic history rolling in reverse, check out the rezoning application he recently submitted to county planners.
I've never seen such a request. Neither has Ron Pianta, Hernando County's land services director. The only thing close in Pasco County, said Lee Mallard, assistant zoning director, came from a property owner north of Dade City who had permission to sell large residential lots and asked for permission to sell larger ones.
See, Malouf is not only asking for his land to be rezoned from residential to agricultural; he actually wants to farm the land.
To understand the huge trend he's bucking, consider that in recent decades landowners have received permission to build 57,702 lots in Hernando County that are still empty, many of them on formerly agricultural land. Farmland wasn't really farmland; it was fallow ground for a future crop of stucco.
Malouf has already fenced off a pasture for a high-grade variety of horse hay called Tifton 44. His main cash crop will be blueberries or, maybe, one of the newly developed breeds of peaches that thrive in Florida's warm climate. He will plant row crops such as okra, tomatoes and melon — not for the mass market, but to feed himself and maybe sell at produce stands.
To do all of this, he needs to clear the woods that cover large areas of the undulating property. And that's the main reason — freedom from bureaucratic obstacles to working his land — that he's asking for the zoning change. If he just wanted to lower his property tax bill, he said, he would buy more cows and claim a greenbelt exemption, just like the owners of a lot of other big, stalled developments.
"I want to farm," said Malouf, 65. "I don't want to build."
This attitude is especially strange — some people have even called him "crazy," he said — because Malouf is also a developer.
A former co-owner of Abraham Chevrolet in Tampa, he owns three Beef 'O' Brady's franchises, including the one in Brooksville, and built Horse Lake Plaza, where the restaurant is located. Spend any time with him and he'll tell you he's got one more site available that would be perfect for a steakhouse. He'll probably ask if you know anybody who might be interested.
People like this, with a lot of money invested, don't generally like the idea of prolonged reversals in our economy. But as Malouf describes it, this could have some upsides:
Maybe landowners would stop dreaming about big, easy payoffs and think about the smaller, regular ones that come with hard work. Our community might become known for its blueberries or peaches rather than foreclosures. Prices of land could stay low enough that farming actually makes economic sense.
And, hopefully, people who want to take on the honorable job of raising healthy food won't be called crazy.