I always thought of Seven Hills as more or less an extension of Spring Hill — neighborhoods of stucco homes, strip shopping centers on Mariner Boulevard and a run-of-the-mill golf course.
So I was surprised when Cliff Manuel called it the county's "most sustainable community,'' and a previous generation's version of what he hopes to bring to the old Florida Rock Industries mining pit 6 miles north of Brooksville — the massive Quarry Preserve.
This is the thumbnail version of what Manuel, president of Coastal Engineering Associates of Brooksville, means by sustainable: Most of the residents' needs are provided by the developer — roads, schools, medical care, recreation and jobs.
A couple of what I took to be strip centers are actually business parks, with law offices, day care centers and the like. There are lots of medical buildings on both sides of Mariner, but especially near Spring Hill Regional Hospital, which was built on a site that was part of the original plan for the 939-acre, 1,800-home Seven Hills development approved by the county in 1987. So was Suncoast Elementary School.
There's a mix of housing, from an apartment complex to the Wellington gated community, built on Seven Hills land by Ryland Homes. There's also a Publix-anchored shopping plaza and one of my family's favorite hangouts, the Hernando County Family YMCA, built mostly by Seven Hills' developer, Jireh Inc. of Tarpon Springs.
Manuel, whose firm represented Jireh and the developers of the Quarry, mentioned Seven Hills when we recently met to, basically, figure out if there was anything we could agree on. There is: that well-planned development can be good for Hernando.
But in looking at the best and worst of Seven Hills, I found more arguments against than for the Quarry, mostly because of its distance from any other population center.
Seven Hills is, as planners like to say, "infill development,'' occupying a gap between populous western Pasco County and Spring Hill (though as Manuel points out, both were a lot less populous at the time).
Because of Seven Hills' location, Mariner — which Jireh helped build through its subdivision — became a major connector between other busy roads, and the Y, school and hospital serve surrounding neighborhoods.
So in one way, the fact that Seven Hills seems like an extension of Spring Hill is a good thing. It fits.
It's bad because, like Spring Hill, the only way to get around is by car.
There's no town center, no allowances made for walkers, bikes or — beyond greens and fairways — golf carts. (Don't laugh. Go to the Villages and you can see golf carts as a true alternative mode of transportation.)
So, what ties the place together is a four-lane road and big parking lots. Planning is an evolving art, and even many designers of these car-centered projects now consider them wasteful, ugly and outdated.
And is Seven Hills really sustainable?
Well, its office parks, school and hospital don't offer enough jobs or a wide enough variety of them to employ a large percentage of Seven Hills residents, said Paul Wieczorek, senior planner with the Hernando County Planning Department. Shopping is also very limited.
"I wouldn't consider (Seven Hills) sustainable the way the Quarry is meant to be sustainable,'' Wieczorek said. "It's more of a mixed-use development.''
This shows the extreme difficulty of planning a true complete city. And though Manuel says it's more feasible when working on the scale of the Quarry, which will cover 4,800 acres, so far, he hasn't come close, according to a recent report by the state Department of Community Affairs.
There's not enough movement between neighborhoods, not enough jobs created, too many homes for retirees. Along with its isolated location, it means a lot of people who live there will need to make long trips on state and county roads to work, shop or have fun, the DCA said.
Manuel says he can fix this. Using the state's comments as a guide, developers can build a walkable city according to the most modern planning principles.
Except, by the time it's actually built, it might not be any more modern than Seven Hills is now.
There are a half-dozen subdivisions with town centers in Pasco County, its administrator, John Gallagher, said recently. He likes the concept, but said they now seem a good decade away from development. Demand for a city in northern Hernando will probably trail by several more years.
Which means that unless you're the Quarry's owner, there's no need to rush.