Traffic lights dangling from wires along the northernmost stretch of Gunn Highway will soon be a thing of the past.
Steel mast arms are replacing the wooden poles and wiring at Gunn where it intersects Tarpon Springs Road and Lutz-Lake Fern Road. But some residents say the new, more modern traffic signals are just another unwanted and unnecessary government intrusion into the Keystone area.
For them, the old traffic lights are about more than looks or nostalgia. They are signs of a rural way of living they have long fought to preserve here.
In this slice of northern Hillsborough, residents are quick to mobilize when they catch wind of a new development being proposed. They once sued the county to prevent an elementary school from being built at the Gunn Highway and N Mobley Road intersection, known as Fox's Corner.
People here are different from other suburbs, such as Westchase, Citrus Park and Northdale where homeowners have begged for more government resources and investment.
"Some communities want to develop, want to thrive, want to have business," said Hillsborough County spokesman Steve Valdez.
Then, he said, there's Keystone. "They want to be left alone."
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Over the years, some modern conveniences have arrived in the 32 square miles that include the Keystone-Odessa community, which stretches roughly from Pinellas County east to the Suncoast Parkway and from S Mobley Road north to Pasco County. Now, the area's 11,000 residents no longer have to make an 8-mile trip to Tarpon Springs to go to the grocery store or bank. A Sweetbay Supermarket and Fifth Third Bank stand near Gunn and Van Dyke Road, not far from Keystone's library and community center.
Still, the area has a decidedly small-town, country flavor that residents say they won't allow to be diluted by developers or the government. That makes them wary of any attempts to modernize.
The Keystone Civic Association is headed by advocates for keeping the area rural, guiding residents in fights to prevent roads, including Gunn, from being widened beyond two lanes. They also insist that county officials stick to the Keystone-Odessa Community Plan, a citizen-designed blueprint for the area's future that limits the size, scope and architectural design of new buildings.
Longtime resident Sam Prentice was among members who attended a community meeting late last year where the county shared its plan to install the new traffic lights. The 79-year-old isn't much of a public speaker, so he pulled out an old electric typewriter to collect his thoughts before the next forum.
The county had furloughed workers and slashed its parks and recreation budget, Prentice wrote, so why tear down perfectly good traffic lights and install new ones?
"If money is really scarce in our county, we are throwing it away by building and enhancing things that residents do not want," the note said. "The money that these changes will cost can be better spent in areas that need and want changes."
Prentice and his wife, Carol, moved into Keystone in 1975 and own 10 acres that have seen a variety of uses: blueberries, grapes, even cut-your-own Christmas trees. Now they lease to a dairy farmer and delight in watching newborn calves graze in the shade.
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Not every resident here is antigrowth, says a developer who in 2008 helped launch a group intended to rival the Keystone Civic Association. Keystone: the Great Northwest Business League Inc. formed to fight to repeal growth restrictions in the community.
But the group hasn't been very active. Yet developer Claire Clements said many residents are amenable to, even craving, modern conveniences that the Keystone Civic Association has opposed, such as a proposal to build a grocery store at the Tarpon Springs Road and Gunn Highway intersection.
"The only voices the county ever hears are the people who are against it, so they don't realize that the majority of residents out there don't mind certain things," Clements said.
The civic association's actions have actually penalized the community and landowners who want to build, she said.
"They have hurt a lot of other residents in Keystone who would have liked perhaps a small commercial center just for the Odessa area," Clements said. "They've done more damage than good."
Civic association president Tom Aderhold said it is the developers who are in the minority because no one else spoke up to support their mission during a series of meetings over the past year to discuss revisions to the community plan.
"We never heard from anybody other than Stephen Dibbs and a couple of other developers," Aderhold said. "Those are the only people that showed up and said they want what this business association touted as their mission."
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County Commissioner Victor Crist says he listens to arguments on both sides regarding issues in the Keystone-Odessa area, but ultimately the community plan is his guide before casting votes. The plan is under a routine 10-year review. That process, Crist said, ensures that it reflects the views of the majority.
"You work with them and the others to build a consensus that everyone can live with and stick to it," he said.
The recent traffic light debate wasn't a clear loss for residents who oppose them — their lobbying resulted in the plan being scaled back. The project has been designed and funded, but construction is yet to begin and there is no definite time line.
The county has stood by the first phase of the project, which will cost a total of about $200,000 and also includes new wheelchair ramps. Valdez said the steel traffic signals are hurricane-proof, making them safer than the poles and wiring there now.
But the county has called off additional plans, including sidewalks and curbing, partly because residents disapproved, partly because the county doesn't have the $1 million to pay for that project, Valdez said.
Linda Martin, who moved to Keystone in 1963, has argued that the community doesn't need the new traffic lights or wheelchair ramps, and the county should listen to what residents think is best for the area.
And she is firmly in the camp that believes that the preservation of open, green spaces in Keystone is most important. Yes, that means a farther drive to strip malls and office complexes, but that is what makes the community special.
"There are a lot of people who live here because they just like the way it is," Martin said. "It's a choice."
Tia Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3405.