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With development looming, little left of Pinellas' citrus industry

LARGO — In the days when the Pinellas County air smelled of sweet orange blossoms, Bobbie Smith would weave barefoot through her family's maze of citrus trees to the pond where her grandmother fished from her perch on an empty fruit box.

Back through the grove, where a Buick and GMC dealership now showcases its shiny cars, workers employed by Smith's uncle, Al Repetto, sold fresh-squeezed juice and orange ice cream to regular customers and tourists from up North.

It was Orange Blossom Groves in its prime, thriving in a county where branches weighed down by juicy citrus ruled the landscape. Now, an overgrown patch home to coyotes and mangled trees is the last vestige of the roughly 13,500 acres of large commercial groves that 60 years ago made Pinellas one of the top citrus-producing counties in Florida. But it won't stay that way for long.

Fittingly for the state's most densely populated county, a developer wants to clear the 17-acre property at U.S. 19 and Belleair Road and build 136 townhouses.

The land, owned by Repetto's brother-in-law Bill Smith and the Repetto family, would join the ranks of several former groves, including the other Orange Blossom site in Seminole, now a neighborhood of large houses that held its grand opening in October.

"Those are the last snippets of what was citrus culture in the county," said Jim Schnur, a special collections librarian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the author of several books on Pinellas history.

Most of the grove owners have died, but they left behind relatives who remember growing up on the land as the development boom began in the county. One is Repetto's daughter, Sandy Miller. Like most, she said the change was hard to watch. But it was also inevitable.

"As progress goes, we're just one more casualty I guess," Miller, 57, said.

• • •

In the 1830s, a pioneer named Odet Philippe established the county's first citrus grove, according to historical information from the county. With the completion of the Orange Belt Railroad in 1888, more and more people flocked to the county, which was soon dotted with towns along the tracks, including Tarpon Springs, Clearwater and, at the end of the route, St. Petersburg.

By the turn of the century, three industries dominated the county's economy: sponges in north county, tourism down south and citrus right in the middle. In 1927, the county ranked fourth for citrus shipments in the state, according to the county. By 1955, there were more than a million citrus trees in the county, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Some of the larger groves were centered where Seminole and Largo are now, including one belonging to John S. Taylor, a man instrumental in carving out the Pinellas peninsula from Hillsborough County. Taylor ran a packing house where Largo Central Park is now, one of around 13 large plants in the county in 1929, according to W.L. Straub's History of Pinellas County Florida.

Orange Blossom Groves came in 1946, first at the Seminole location, then three years later at the spot off U.S. 19. Bobbie Smith remembered going to the packing house to watch in wonder as the citrus was washed, dried and sprayed with wax. Miller said the business shipped more than 100,000 crates a year.

After the development boom began toward the end of the 1950s and a bad freeze hit the county in 1962, groves began to disappear. Sometime in the late 1960s to early 1970s, the county hit a tipping point where the proportion of groves to developments that used to be groves was equal, Schnur said.

"We've been on the other side of that ever since," he said.

Repetto, who died in 2012, held on the longest, his 3,600 trees the last ones left by 2002.

It was citrus canker that put him out of business. It crept into 27,000 trees in 2005 at a grove in Ruskin where a large portion of his fruit came from, Miller said. Her children, in college at the time, burned the trees that summer to keep the disease from spreading.

"My dad couldn't even show up to the grove," she said.

That same year, Citrus Country Groves took over the business at both Orange Blossom locations and ran the stores until 2011. The Seminole site was later built into a neighborhood called Seminole Groves with homes priced in the $300,000s. A portion of the other site, where the store sat, became home to Dick Norris Buick GMC Clearwater.

• • •

Tucked on the northwest corner of the property is Bill Smith's home, where he sold fruit from a stand in his front yard until about a year ago, his daughter said. He's hanging onto about half an acre in the sale with the developer M/I Homes of Tampa.

The developer is under contract to buy the land from the Repetto and Smith families. If all goes as planned, the property will be built into 136 two-story townhouses with one- and two-car garages, said Peter Pensa, a planner with the Palm Harbor-based Avid Group working with the developer. M/I Homes could not be reached for comment.

Neighbors bordering the property have mixed feelings about the development, especially regarding traffic in the area. From their home in the Sharon Oaks subdivision bordering the property, Linda and Dave Lance said traffic has become abysmal since the U.S. 19 overpass was completed. They would rather see a neighborhood with multi-million dollar homes on large lots to keep congestion down.

"It would keep the pace of everything," Dave Lance, 66, said. "You can't just jam people in without some foresight."

But Judy Hallstrom, president of the Sharon Oaks Property Owners Association and an opponent of the plan when it was introduced in November 2014, said the developer has made modifications to appease residents, such as reducing the number of units and ensuring wetlands on the south side of the property will be protected.

"This, I think, is the best thing that they can do with the property," Hallstrom, 66, said. "People have a right to sell their property, and the county has a right to build houses."

• • •

At Yellow Banks Grove, a packing house in Largo that opened in 1951, owner John Buck remembers when at least half the fruit he shipped out came from his county after he started at the store in 1962. Now, Buck, 82, sends pickers to groves near Winter Haven and on the east coast.

"Largo High can change their mascots from the 'Packers' to the 'Condos' or something like that," Schnur, the USF historian, said.

Florida farmers sold just under $2 billion in citrus in 2012, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and a University of Florida study found the statewide industry to have a $10.7 billion economic impact.

In Pinellas, instead of those 13,500 acres of groves, there are now almost 800 apartment complexes and more than 800 condo projects, according to the property appraiser's office. Some call it progress. Some call it lack of planning.

But family members of the county's old growers want people to understand something: No farmer ever wants to give up their land.

"Sometimes you don't feel you have a choice," Miller said. "It's a love-hate relationship because it grows you a beautiful orange, but then you have a hard freeze, you're under quarantine, and now they're fighting greening."

Construction on the townhouses is anticipated to start next fall, Pensa said.

Until then, that relic of old Pinellas will remain, producing the occasional fruit that will fall to the ground.

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.

With development looming, little left of Pinellas' citrus industry 04/05/16 [Last modified: Monday, April 11, 2016 1:36am]
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