The "no trespassing" warning on the gate at Two Rivers Ranch seems almost biblical _ "DO NOT ENTER UPON THIS LAND."
Trespassers will be prosecuted is what it says, but it seems to imply that the uninvited could face the kind of troubles once reserved for intransigent Egyptian Pharaohs.
Florida Power spent more than 10 years and a lot of money trying to enter upon the land that has belonged to the Thomas family for three generations. The family spent uncounted hours and dollars enforcing its "no trespassing" sign. Last week, the giant utility company said "uncle."
Plans for a high voltage power line snaking through northwest Hillsborough County _ past homes, across wetlands and directly through Two Rivers Ranch _ were officially put "on hold."
What stopped the project? A company spokesman said it was not the neighbors who worried about electromagnetic fields, or the objections of just about every politician in the county, and it certainly wasn't the Thomas family's unending legal roadblocks. It was money. The project, delayed for so long, is now too expensive.
When Florida Power threw in the towel last week, opponents of the project were ready to celebrate. But at Two Rivers, no champagne corks were flying.
The stack of maps, used at so many public hearings, still stand in the corner of the ranch's meeting room. Tom Dyer, the ranch vice president who was point man in the battle, still talks to the family lawyers. And Robert Thomas Jr. continues with the business of ranching _ testing to see which cows are pregnant. Culling out the unhealthy ones. Getting the rest back in the fields so the calving can start.
Thomas says he is not ready to celebrate.
"Not by any means," he says.
After all, Florida Power still has all the permits to construct the line. It just said it was putting the plan on hold. And if Florida Power does indeed scrap the project, the 14,000-acre family ranch isn't out of danger from uninvited intrusion.
The local water authority is eyeing the Thomas land for a well field. Government agencies could want part of the land for a road, a prison or a landfill. Urban sprawl is approaching from two directions. And local, state and federal regulations _ some intended, ironically, to control growth _ are threatening the bankable value of the property.
"You're always going to be a target," says Thomas, whose tanned face breaks easily into a boyish smile.
Thomas says his family has been a good steward of this land. His grandfather deeded over the property across U.S. Highway 301 that is now the Hillsborough River State Park. A portion of the land is home to the New Life Dwelling Place, a retreat for abused children. The family operates Crystal Springs, a swimming area that attracts 80,000 visitors a year, the ranch itself welcomes some 20,000 guests each year. And the 40-million gallons a day that Crystal Springs pumps into the Hillsborough River provides drinking water for the city of Tampa.
As a misty rain falls, Thomas steers his pickup across a grass pasture toward the Hillsborough River. Arched cypress hammocks rise in the distance. Closer to the river, the woods are thick with oaks, pines and palmetto.
Thomas played here when he was a boy. He and his son live here now. He hopes his son will be able to share the land with his children.
"If we had sold the land to the power company, we'd have made some short-term gains, but we're not oriented to the short term," he said. "Thinking short term has gotten our society in the mess we're in."
Thomas says the power line fight was ultimately a good thing. It brought rural people and urban residents together in a common cause. That's the way they should remain.
"The quality of life of urban people depends on the rural. We're interrelated. We need each other."
Paul Wilborn's column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Call Wilborn with a tip at 226-3346.