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Property owners left in limbo

The spit of land nestled against the banks of Allen's Creek has been Jim Cheatham's home for 33 years.

There, he built a house and raised a family. There, he relaxed after work by fishing or swimming or watching his daughter ride horses. There, he planted and nurtured dozens of trees that have grown to a shady lushness.

Now, at 71, alone for 10 years since the death of his wife, the retired businessman is ready to leave. The property is for sale and Cheatham is eager to move back to Virginia.

But government designs may stand in the way.

Cheatham and dozens of other residents fear that efforts to sell their homes will be futile until elected officials decide whether to move forward with a massive plan being developed to clean up Allen's Creek. The plan could involve the purchase of numerous homes in the area.

And what buyer, homeowners ask, would want to invest money in an area with such an uncertain future?

Eventually, Pinellas County and the cities of Clearwater and Largo may adopt a detailed cleanup plan. At that point, the government would make a commitment to purchase the properties it needs along the creek.

But for now, there is no plan. The county still is a month or more away from putting forth a detailed proposal to clean up the creek. But there is talk about what county environmental officials are considering.

And that, many say, will be enough to scare off home buyers for now.

"Ask any Realtor and they will tell you that in the interim period, no one else will want it," Cheatham said. "That could be a significant period of time."

Allen's Creek is one of the largest of the 54 creeks and streams in Pinellas County. The creek drains a watershed of 4,682 acres bordered by Drew Street to the north, East Bay Drive to the south, Highland Avenue to the west and Tampa Bay to the east. The creek empties into Old Tampa Bay just south of Belleair Road.

The creek is polluted, as are most creeks in the county. Oil and other pollutants race to the creek with stormwater that flows over driveways, roads and parking lots. Sea walls keep back erosion and in places the creek has been straightened and widened to help control flooding _ both practices that now are considered environmentally unsound.

County environmental officials envision a cleanup based on restoring the creek's natural ability to keep itself clean.

That can be done only with land _ land to filter pollutants the way it did naturally before being developed, said Tom Cuba, assistant director of Pinellas County's division of environmental management.

But very little undeveloped land remains. So Cuba says there are few options besides buying waterfront property if the creek is to be significantly improved.

"You're going to end up taking something," Cuba said. "The great majority of this watershed is residential development."

The general plan calls for the county to purchase several homes along Allen's Creek and build retention ponds to filter the pollutants from stormwater before it reaches the creek. Other parts of the plan call for sea walls to be removed and for steep banks to be sloped more naturally and planted with native vegetation.

Cuba said he expects a detailed plan to be ready in about a month. The plan, which would outline which properties are to be purchased, then would go before county commissioners. Eventually, elected officials in Clearwater and Largo also would be asked to sign on to the project.

That means it could be several months before a final plan is approved, if one is adopted at all.

And that's what scares residents who are ready to sell.

Barbara Mangus said she and her husband, Joe, already have moved from their house on the creek to a townhome. The house is for sale.

"We need to sell now, not five years from now, not 10 years from now," Mrs. Mangus said. But, she added, "Nobody wants to buy a house that they're unsure about."

Cuba says the county is taking that into account and doing everything possible to ease any disruption to residents. The staff will recommend to commissioners that no homes be condemned, he said. Instead, homes will be purchased where they are needed only as residents are ready to sell.

Therefore, even those who buy a home in the area now could stay 10 or 20 years or longer and not worry about being forced out.

"The whole idea is to reduce the impact and the disruption by simply waiting until the owner is through with his house and is ready to move," Cuba said.

Cuba also said he can't agree with residents who feel home values will be reduced by the construction of retention ponds in a neighborhood.

There's no doubt retention ponds can be ugly, he said, but newer rules call for retention ponds to be built to resemble natural ponds.

"I can show you a number of homes in this county whose prices were elevated because they were sold as waterfront property when they face a retention pond," Cuba said.

In addition, Cuba said, the restoration plan itself could improve property values instead of decrease them as some residents fear.

"If the floodplain is restored and it becomes a park with a bicycle trail and a nature park in it and every home in the watershed is within 10 blocks of what now becomes a linear park, the tax base will improve," he said.

Still, there is more uncertainty at this point than certainty. And no amount of speculation on the part of county environmental officials can ease residents' fear, especially those who are ready to sell.

"We plan to retire," said Carmel Ceraolo, who lives on Kent Place, not far from Jim Cheatham. "But to me, it's ridiculous to put it on the market. I don't think anyone would buy it.

"I don't need this," Ceraolo added. "We were thinking about moving to get away from the hustle and the bustle. "

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