The waterfall on U.S. 19 is supposed to be Spring Hill's identifying feature.
I'm worried that now it's those little plastic signs stuck into the grass on the roadsides.
You've seen them, I'm sure, with their scrawled-in-Sharpie messages advertising houses, diet pills, "recession-proof'' jobs and garage sales.
If these aren't the new Spring Hill landmarks, maybe it's an overgrown lawn. Or yards crowded with boats, work trucks or cars on jacks.
"Now that you have no deed restrictions, you can park a boat or any damn thing in the front yard. They even got PODS (storage units) in front yards now,'' said former Spring Hill Civic Association president Sal Fico, 88.
"Spring Hill has really gone to the dumps.''
After driving all over Hernando County's largest community last week, I don't think that's quite true.
Away from the main drags, plenty of neighborhoods look as good as they did 20 years ago, when civic association meetings could draw a couple of hundred homeowners and Fico was elected on the promise of tougher enforcement of deed restrictions.
Some neighborhoods look better, as a matter of fact, which I can tell you from experience, having started at the Hernando Times the same week Fico was elected. Trees have grown and limbs have spread, and caring owners have added decks, trellises and fountains — character, basically — to the original Deltona Corp. tract housing.
Also, if Spring Hill is on its way down, it's been heading that way for at least 20 years.
"It's getting a little out of hand here now, as far as deed restrictions and all that," Fico said in October 1989.
Nine years later, a story in the Times reported that the value of Spring Hill lots had dropped more than 30 percent since 1995 and quoted residents complaining about the ragged appearance of some homes along Spring Hill Drive.
In 2000, the civic association (now known as the Spring Hill Community Association) lost its right to enforce deed restrictions — which, in any case, it hadn't bothered with for a while — because of a failure to file required paperwork with the county.
The real estate boom temporarily reversed the decline, with the average sale price for homes in Spring Hill bouncing from $122,000 in 2004 to $182,000 in 2006.
The collapse of the average price since then — to $102,000 so far in 2009 — has been stunning, but no more so than in many other parts of the county, said John Emerson of the Hernando County Property Appraiser's Office.
So why pick on Spring Hill?
Because to the extent that the densely populated west side of the county has a shared community identity, it's as Spring Hill.
That's the name on the map. Even if you live in Silverthorn or Timber Pines, Spring Hill Drive is your Main Street.
And because, whether or not we want this to be true in the future, our economy is built on housing, and the value of existing homes goes a long way to determine our personal and public wealth. The 22 percent drop in the sale price of the average home in Spring Hill from 2008 to 2009, for example, says grim things about future tax revenues.
And, finally, because Fico has a point: Long stretches of the most visible roads in Spring Hill look pretty crummy. Driving around last week, I saw just about every sign of blight Fico mentioned (though no PODS), including grass and weeds growing up around the gazebo and flagpole at the entrance to Spring Hill at Northcliffe Boulevard and U.S. 19.
The demise of deed restrictions is part of the story. So are cuts to the enforcement of county codes.
While these were never written to the finicky standards of Spring Hill's original deed restrictions — which banned, for example, parking boats in front of houses — they do forbid eyesores such as junked cars or grass higher than 18 inches.
Since the beginning of 2008, county Code Enforcement has two fewer officers in the field and one less person taking complaints over the telephone, said health and human services director Jean Rags.
That means, for example, that the illegal signs that were once removed from county rights of way once a week are now removed once a month.
"It's been a struggle to say the least,'' Rags said.
This is all happening in the declining economy, as more houses have been abandoned or rented out. Homeowners might not have money to pay a lawn service or even repair a mower. The proceeds from a garage sale advertised on one of those ugly plastic signs might buy a week's worth of groceries.
So who wants to pounce on folks when they're down?
Not me. And generally I'm not one to mourn the passing of Spring Hill's deed restrictions, and their preoccupation with issues such as visible basketball hoops. I wouldn't want my neighbor ratting me out just because, as is generally the case, my lawn looks more like a hay field than a putting green.
But after talking to Spring Hill residents such as Harry and Cecile Bryan, I do at least understand the principle behind deed restrictions, which is that maintaining private property is a community responsibility.
The Bryans live in one of those neighborhoods that prove that when it comes to subdivisions, age doesn't have to equal decline.
Their lawn is cut and their roof, new. The brick veneer on their 31-year-old house looks as if it's just been pressure-washed and the strip of stucco above it freshly painted.
They are pleased with their neighborhood, and I don't blame them. But to get there you have to drive down Spring Hill Drive, which is only a block away.
I wonder if prospective home buyers now would have the same impression the Bryans did when they were shopping for a retirement home 11 years ago.
"We drove down Spring Hill Drive,'' Cecile Bryan said, "and we thought, 'Hey! It's pretty nice around here.' ''