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Citrus developers predict slower, stricter growth

Business owners and developers in Citrus County are again looking north for signs of what 1990 will bring. But unlike past years, their focus is more on Tallahassee than on the northern real estate markets. "The thing that probably creates most unhappiness in any community is Big Brother in Tallahassee telling us what we can and can't do," said Sandy Counts, owner and broker of Re/Max Real Estate Service in Crystal River.

The hottest game in town is speculating on how the county's state-ordered comprehensive plan will affect the development industry, which thousands of people in Citrus County rely on for their livelihoods.

A recent University of Florida study predicted that growth in Florida will slow in the 1990s and that the number of people moving into the state may drop from about 1,000 a day to about 900.

Citrus County's population has been rising steadily, and though it may slow, no one argues that it will stop growing.

Despite their worries, most Citrus County development leaders expect the county to continue to grow and prosper, albeit not as fast as before and with a lot more government strings attached.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," said developer Stan Olsen, whose list of local accomplishments includes the Black Diamond golf course and home development and the Meadowcrest residential and business development.

Olsen, like Counts, believes the settlement recently reached between the county and state over the comprehensive plan is another example of increased government interference that is choking business people.

"Government controls are getting out of hand," Olsen said. More red tape "is the major problem we have, from the city, county, state and federal governments."

Of course, the state government and growth management advocates don't see it that way. State legislators passed the Growth Management Act of 1985 to halt the uncontrolled growth that threatens to strangle some areas of south Florida and, in recent years, has spread throughout the nation's fastest growing state.

Much of the government intervention in Citrus County's comprehensive plan, says Thomas Pelham, secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, stems from the fact that local governments aren't willing to make the tough decisions needed to protect the environment from overdevelopment.

The growth plan settlement, reached after months of bickering between local and state planners, severely limits development on farmland, waterfront and along some sections of major roads throughout the county.

Much of the affected property will drop in value because its uses are now limited. However, the remaining property suitable for commercial development could soar in value. The county property appraiser's office is now determining just what those economic impacts will be.

There is no doubt, however, that the comprehensive plan changes the way development and business will be conducted in Citrus during this decade.

The new, stricter development rules come at a time when experts are saying that Florida's population explosion may be winding down slightly.

According to the county's comprehensive plan, Citrus County population - now about 90,000 - should reach 144,000 by 2005. During that same time, the county is expected to need nearly 20,000 new single-family homes to house those new residents.

In addition to the traditional immigration of retirees from up North, families are coming to Citrus, county school officials say. The student population in the county schools has been increasing about 4 percent a year.

New home building, though still the bread and butter of county growth, has fallen from the boom times of a few years ago.

Building permits in 1989 declined to 1,286 single family homes from 1,435 in 1988. Though still averaging three and a half new home permits a day, the drop is forcing builders to tighten their tool belts.

"As Citrus County matures as a market, we builders have to start looking at market segment, to carve out a niche" and hold it, said George Rusaw of Rusaw Homes.

The market for lower-priced homes for retirees, once an open field, has shrunk. "Entry level homes are almost a thing of the past," said Rusaw, and only a few specialized builders are doing well in that market.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, few builders are specializing in very expensive custom homes. That leaves, Rusaw said, "a whole bunch of contractors in between who are just trying to find a market."

As always, the ability of Northern retirees and others to sell their homes up North helps determine whether they can afford to come to Florida and buy a home.

In traveling to home shows this year in Chicago and New York, Rusaw noted optimism among the browsers. "The folks at these shows were a lot more confident than last year," Rusaw said.

People up North "are pricing their homes more realistically," he said. "What we're finding, folks up North are selling their homes for between $125,000 and $175,000." With that, "they're able to come down here and buy a much larger, fancier, more sophisticated home."

Citrus County builders expect to be building fewer homes, but more

expensive ones - a trend that many in the industry have noted in the last two years or so.

"We'll have fewer numbers of sales" in the coming year, predicted Rusaw. "But the quality of those sales will be better."

The business community is hoping that the massive shopping mall rising along U.S. 19 in Crystal River also will draw more home buyers to the area.

Though some small business owners have feared that Edward J. DeBartolo's Crystal River Mall might lure away customers when it opens in October, many believe it will help business by drawing shoppers here from other counties. They also hope the mall will keep Citrus County shoppers' dollars from heading to malls in Ocala or New Port Richey.

"We lose a lot of people to the malls in Pasco and Ocala," Counts said.

Olsen agreed that the mall "is one of the more positive outlooks" for the local economy. It will create jobs, draw businesses and become "one more step in the maturity of our area."

Olsen said he was concerned, though, that the jobs the mall would create were mostly service jobs. He believes that industry and other occupations are necessary to the continued growth of the county, and that Citrus County has the resources to attract those types of jobs.

"We have a lot of problems ahead of us," he said, "but we have all the resources to be the very best."