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School land fight may be at an end

Pasco County school officials warned for months that their inability to obtain land for an elementary school could lead to double sessions for pupils from Richey Fundamental School and Deer Park Elementary School.

The problem, they said, was landowner Doris Harvey, a Tampa resident who, along with her two grown daughters, controls the land through a trust. In court documents and interviews, school officials have described Mrs. Harvey in terms such as "unreasonable" and "uncooperative."

"I can understand a property owner wanting to get the best price for their property, but we feel that Mrs. Harvey has been just so unreasonable," school Superintendent Tom Weightman said Friday morning. His comments came shortly before district officials and Mrs. Harvey's attorney reached an agreement that could end the legal haggling and remove the threat of double sessions.

Mrs. Harvey has a much different perspective on who has been unreasonable, and she was the one who instructed her attorney to offer the proposed resolution.

The parcel that officials first focused on would have cut the middle 35 acres out of a 140-acre tract on Plathe Road. Mrs. Harvey wanted to use the 140 acres to develop a planned community, but delayed those plans because of the recession. She said selling the middle acres would devalue the surrounding land and make the remaining parcels less desirable for residential development.

"We're not fussing over money," Mrs. Harvey said during a three-hour interview Thursday with the Pasco Times. "We're fussing over them taking the center of the property."

Her attorney, Kevin Ambler, and district officials reached an agreement in principle Friday morning to move the school site to the west of the center parcel, leaving enough room for residential development. If the School Board approves the plan at a special meeting Tuesday, the district will wind up with a piece of land that Mrs. Harvey suggested as an alternative months ago and, she and her attorney contend, could have saved Pasco taxpayers the legal fees racked up since then.

School officials, however, say that she wanted too much for the land and wouldn't consider an appraisal of $525,000 they had obtained on the original 35 acres they sought. Offers back and forth apparently weren't seen as serious by either side _ until Friday morning.

Ambler said Friday that he and Mrs. Harvey "stayed mindful" of the time factor involved and are pleased that the case appears to be headed for resolution in time for the school to be completed by the fall of 1994. The district was given permission to send crews to start work on the property, which is north of Plathe Road and between Rowan and Little roads.

Besides Tuesday's board meeting, the next day a judge has to issue a "leave of taking" so that the district can assume possession of the land. All along, the district has proceeded with plans, so architects have been working on the design.

A 12-member Pasco jury will decide fair compensation for the land at a trial that probably will occur early next year.

Although Mrs. Harvey said all along that she didn't want to sell her land, she took seriously school officials' threats to obtain the land through eminent domain proceedings. Even before talk of a lawsuit, Doris Harvey knew all too well the process of eminent domain. There had been a time when the Harveys were much more willing to deal with Pasco officials and had, in fact, donated land to the county.

Those days screeched to a halt in the mid-1970s.

When the

trouble started

Over the years, O. J. Harvey, who today still is described with words such as "honesty" and "integrity," amassed land in west Pasco that today stands among the most desirable undeveloped tracts. He died at age 84 in 1984, having earned his fortune through hard work, toiling in the citrus groves he planted on the land he bought.

When the citrus industry began to slide, Harvey planted pine trees on much of his land so that he could keep its agricultural zoning, according to Pasco County Property Appraiser Ted Williams, the official who has dealt most with the Harveys over the years.

That Harvey planted pine trees in the late '60s and early '70s "shows that he didn't intend to sell his property anytime soon," Williams said.

Those who knew Harvey say he was devoted to his family and to his livelihood and that as much as he doted on his daughters he doted on his citrus trees, working six days a week.

"I'm a trustee of this land and as hard as O. J. worked for it, I've got to protect it," Mrs. Harvey said Thursday.

Harvey's intent, as well as his love of his land, is what Mrs. Harvey wants to keep alive.

Mrs. Harvey said she has a fiduciary responsibility as a trustee to protect the interests of the trust.

So she rejected the school district's attempts to buy the land.

The district searched for different property for a year after Mrs. Harvey told officials she didn't want to sell her land. Plans to open the fundamental school were pushed back from the fall of 1993 to a year later, and district officials returned to Mrs. Harvey, whose property they had decided was the prime location.

At first, the school will be without boundaries, meaning that youngsters from throughout the district will be able to attend classes there in what is known as a "fundamental school." Eventually though, it is likely that the school will have boundaries so that children from certain areas will attend classes there.

With that likelihood in mind, district officials said they considered numerous issues, including location of other Pasco schools, to determine the best piece of land for the facility. They always returned to Plathe Road and Mrs. Harvey's undeveloped property.

After two face-to-face meetings that both sides agree were hostile, the district took her to court. The initial suit was dismissed and the district refiled the case against the trust and all three trustees.

The force of law

The eminent domain law allows public bodies, such as county governments and school boards, to take private land for public use. The government must prove that taking the land is in the best interests of the public and must also show that other possible avenues for obtaining land have been exhausted. The law further requires the government to pay "just compensation" to owners whose land is taken.

During the interview with the Times, Mrs. Harvey spoke frankly of problems she said she has had over the years dealing with Pasco County officials _ problems that began when her husband was alive.

The incident that apparently set off her wariness of Pasco officials occurred in the '70s, when the county wanted land south of the current Government Center site. As part of a contract with Doris and O.

J. Harvey, the county agreed to pay for citrus trees that eventually would be removed.

Back then, Mrs. Harvey didn't involve herself in her husband's business. She said county officials later convinced her husband that they shouldn't pay for the trees and changed the contract without her approval, even though she was a party to the transaction.

Mr. Harvey wanted the trees to remain untouched until it was time to put in the access road, but a swath was cut through the land anyway.

"O.

J. planted those trees and they were like a member of our family," she said. "He loved each and every one of those trees."

Both she and Property Appraiser Williams, who earned O.

J. Harvey's trust and respect, say that incident terribly upset Harvey. It also disturbed Mrs. Harvey, who even after 15 years angrily speaks of the episode.

Since then, Mrs. Harvey and her daughters, as trustees, have been involved in numerous lawsuits with the county, including an on-going battle over the Massachusetts Avenue extension project.

Williams backed up Mrs. Harvey's version of events regarding how she has been treated by officials, and said that both Mrs. Harvey and O.

J. Harvey were always reasonable and amiable, even when they were in his office to question appraisals of their property, a frequent occurrence.

He scoffed at attempts to portray her as a wealthy Tampa widow whose interest in money compels her to hold up progress in Pasco. Williams related numerous anecdotes relative to the various land disputes _ all of which Mrs. Harvey later confirmed _ and said that Mr. Harvey had such a hard time dealing with Pasco officials that he insisted the property appraiser be present at meetings he had with Pasco officials.

The bottom line, in Williams' characteristically blunt assessment: "This is America. She has property rights. She can sell the land, keep the land, do nothing with the land. It's her land."

_ Staff writer Chuck Murphy contributed to this report.

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