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TAMPA BAY GROWS UP

Geography is destiny.

Go west, young man.

All roads lead to Pasco County.

Through the years, one of those three phrases just hasn't quite fit with the others.

Developer Lew Friedland is quick to admit it.

When people mulled over where to live in the Tampa Bay area, Pasco County was not considered a prime location.

"People wanted to be in Pinellas or Hillsborough," said Friedland, the president of Jireh Inc., the company developing a massive project called Trinity Communities just north of the Pinellas- Pasco line.

That perception of Pasco didn't bode well for the more than 3,000 acres of pastureland Jireh owns.

Nowadays, however, those pastures have never looked greener.

More than 100 houses are built or under construction at Trinity, with 50 more under contract. Clearwater's Morton Plant Hospital has committed to building a multiphase hospital-medical complex there. With one major road and bridge project finished, Jireh will start two other road projects in less than a year.

And if plans fall into place, Trinity, which bills itself as a "brand new old-fashioned hometown," will have 10,000 housing units for 22,000 people within a decade.

Friedland credits his boss, James Gills, the eye surgeon who bought the property back in 1982, with the ability to see the future. "There was some vision shown here," said Friedland, in a shameless pun.

Dean Neal, senior planner in the growth management division of Pasco County government, said that "it's pretty clear now the focus of Tampa Bay is moving north. That means one thing: Pasco."

Give Gills credit for being a visionary, but Trinity's place as a future hub of activity is due as much to what's happening outside the project as inside:

Environmental concerns in northwest Hillsborough County have discouraged development there. That makes the development leap to Pasco look more inviting.

Pinellas County, the most densely populated county in Florida, is a couple of years from being "built out."

"There's just no room for any more big projects. The county can't create more land," said Lee Marsh, principal planner for the Pinellas County Department of Planning.

South Pasco County stands to be the chief beneficiary of several proposed roads, including the North Suncoast Corridor Expressway and the Bi-County Thruway.

And the regulatory climate in Pasco is clearly warmer than it is in the two counties to the south.

Said Neal, "Pasco County wants growth. We're competing for it. If other areas want to build a wall, that's fine. We want urbanization."

Environmental clout

In Hillsborough County, where urbanization has spread freely, the northwest area has become a place where developers see a caution flag.

In the 1980s, it was widely assumed that northwest Hillsborough was poised to become one of the region's next growth hot spots. That may yet happen, but the weak economy has sapped some enthusiasm for new real estate projects. And environmentalists in the area have clout.

Ask James Doyle, the Democratic candidate for the District 2 seat on the Hillsborough County Commission. He faces Jim Norman, a Republican, in the general election on Nov. 3.

Doyle, a former USF professor and government planner, was out last month on the hustings, northwest Hillsborough County-style. In this case, it was along creek beds and lake sides, getting his feet muddy, looking at water levels with a biologist and talking to residents.

"There's a way of life here people want to preserve," said Doyle.

He feels great that he has received the endorsement of the Sierra Club. "It's meaningful," he said.

Candidate Norman says he, too, has gotten his feet wet on the campaign trail and would have liked to have the Sierra Club endorsement.

Norman agrees that candidates listen carefully to members of the Keystone Civic Association and activists in the Lutz community.

In Lutz, for example, the community successfully blocked a proposed road that would have cut through its center, connecting the new Veterans Expressway, scheduled for completion in of 1994, with Interstate 275.

While much of the concern in northwest Hillsborough centers on preserving the rural lifestyle, it also focuses on protecting the numerous lakes and streams.

A 965-acre property called Cypress Bend, zoned for 900 houses, a golf course and a shopping area, seems likely to be preserved as a wildlife refuge and watershed. It feeds the area's well fields, which in turn supply about 80 percent of the water used by the city of St. Petersburg.

Further limiting development in the area is a land-use plan calling for plenty of elbow room.

Most the land earmarked for residential use is now zoned for one house per acre to one house per 2{ acres, said Steve Luce, principal planner with the Hillsborough County Department of Planning & Zoning.

There are some large parcels that could be developed under the right circumstances, Luce said. Among the properties with some development potential are large ranches off Patterson Road in the northwest corner of the county, he said.

In that area is an 860-acre tract owned by the Davis family of Jacksonville, founders of the Winn-Dixie grocery chain.

Other parcels north of Lutz-Lake Fern Road are smaller, in the 200- to 300-acre range.

Luce said he understands the enthusiasm these days in Pasco County, but he doesn't quite buy into the idea that Pasco is likely to become the new center of the universe.

"You might think it if you talk to some of the people there," he said. "We'll get our share of growth here."

Slim pickings

Pinellas County already has gotten most of its share.

In 1993 and 1994, housing starts are predicted to be about 3,000 annually in Pinellas County, many of them in the northeast part of the county.

If the figure is accurate, the big projects in northeast Pinellas, such as Crescent Oaks and Lansbrook, will be largely filled in. And east of Lake Tarpon, large tracts have been earmarked for preservation, said Marsh, the Pinellas planner.

Of course, there won't be a housing shortage in Pinellas, but the big groundbreakings will be few.

"If I wanted to buy just 40 acres in north Pinellas for a small subdivision, I couldn't do it, at any price," said Charles Rutenberg, a veteran Tampa Bay home builder. "(The land) is all used up."

From a developer's standpoint, large land parcels are important. There are economies of scale _ saving money on everything from marketing to building streets. That helps the developers offer housing at a more affordable rate and at the same time turn a profit.

Rutenberg said the lack of land means area developers have one way to turn.

"North," he said.

Sitting pretty

If Rutenberg is right, Friedland is sitting pretty. The Trinity developer makes the fairly safe prediction that growth is coming his way.

"Actually we thought it would happen earlier, but the economy didn't cooperate," he said.

Also headed his way are the roads of the future, a bet Trinity is helping hedge with the deep pockets of Gills.

Within two months, Trinity is scheduled to start building the first leg of the Bi-County Thruway, a proposed 27-mile road with limited access that is supposed to connect south Pasco to I-75 in mid-Pasco (see map).

The first section will run two miles and connect with Little Road, said Friedland.

The other five miles Trinity is responsible for will be built as needed, he said.

The two miles of the thruway will cost in the $3.5-million to $4-million range, said Dan Alridge, chief of planning with Jireh.

The thruway, when completed, would make part of a "loop" that would connect to the Veterans Expressway and provide a bypass around Tampa.

But where the roads will actually go and when they will be completed is mostly guesswork at this point.

David Twiddy, a district engineer with the state Department of Transportation, said the exact route of the thruway is being studied.

"We're looking at alternatives, but we certainly haven't ruled out the proposed route. It doesn't have a fatal flaw that we've found," he said.

Even if the road routes are somewhat speculative, Friedland likes the look of destiny these days.

There are no other major projects in southwestern Pasco as far along in the development process as Trinity.

He doesn't expect that to last, however.

"Others will come. There's too much opportunity," he said.

Certainly, officials in Pasco County won't stand in the way.

Said Bob Steinle, a design engineer with Pasco County: "Growth is our only real industry."

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