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Northdale rallies to keep greenery

Jerry and Jane Johnson were looking for wide-open spaces and fresh air. They were running out of room in their Town 'N Country home. So they went shopping for a bigger place and settled on a two-story house in the Gables I section of Northdale.

The backyard had a swimming pool and a lovely view of woods. Perfect, Jane Johnson thought. "When we moved to this neighborhood, we knew we'd be here forever."

That was last fall. Just five months later, while they were still settling into their new house, they learned that the woods might become an apartment complex. That meant 140 families moving in, displacing the serenity that had brought the Johnsons to Northdale.

"In a sense," said Jane Johnson, a financial analyst, "we felt our dream was lost."

But not without a fight. In recent months, the Johnsons and more than a dozen other Northdale families have rallied against the proposed Altman Development Corp. project at Spring Pine Drive and Northdale Boulevard.

They have written letters, and appeared before a county zoning hearing master. They will protest the plan again before the County Commission next month. They say an apartment complex is even worse than the offices that were originally proposed at the 9-acre site.

"No one should be allowed to interfere with our quality of life," said Jerry Johnson, a department manager for Equifax Card Services.

But development continues to swallow up green space in northwest Hillsborough. Conflicts like the one in Gables I play out throughout the area as new construction, some of it approved in the 1980s, proceeds.

"It's hard to tell somebody they should have known," said Paula Harvey, a zoning administrator with the county's Planning and Development Management Department.

"But you're not going to find anywhere that will remain a vacant property unless it is conservation land. It's too bad from the public's perspective because they want to think the open spaces will remain, but the fact is people are allowed to ask for a rezoning and build if they get it."

The Johnsons' decision to buy the house on Knollview Drive did not come easily.

They spent months looking for the right house in the right neighborhood. They wanted their 4-year-old daughter, Madison, to attend good schools. Northdale, which is served by Claywell Elementary and Gaither High, fit the bill.

And, they say, they did their homework about the adjacent land, but did not anticipate the developer's change in plans when they paid more than $100,000 for their home.

"We thought the worst case scenario would have been an office park," Jerry Johnson said. "That wouldn't have been great, but it wouldn't be so intrusive. The times we were (home) there wouldn't be people there staring into our lives."

Jerry Johnson said the couple was "heartsick" about the particulars of the apartment complex: two- and three-story buildings, a pool and spa and a clubhouse with a business center and indoor racquetball courts.

The complex would back right up to ten houses on tree-shaded Knollview Drive. So the Johnsons and about 20 other families planned a strategy. They contacted county officials and the developer.

Altman vice president Eric Kenney said his company has made some changes in an effort to appease the neighbors. They include reducing some buildings from three stories to two, moving trash areas and kiosks farther away and backing garages 20 feet from the homes and the closest apartment 40 feet away.

"You can see there are many things we've done to recognize that there's a transition point between the residents and us," Kenney said. "If we are approved to build this, in a year from now I'm sure they will say, "I wish they hadn't done it, but they did an okay job.' "

A 6-foot-high buffer consisting of a masonry wall and evergreen trees will separate Gables I residents from the apartments, Kenney said.

That's not enough for some neighbors.

"Our backyards are where all the activity is," said David Cuppett, who has lived in Gables I for 10 years. "We bought these homes because we liked the quiet neighborhoods, the trees. Now they're talking about clearing out the existing trees to put up two and three-story apartments within 40 feet of my backyard."

The project poses other problems too, said Chris Cook, president of the Northdale Civic Association. Traffic will grow heavier. Crime could increase. Residents might have to share the new park on Spring Pine Drive, which could be easily accessible to the apartments.

County officials say they are doing all they can to make sure these and other developers comply with zoning laws and procedures. Beyond that, they advise developers on features that will make their new projects compatible with existing ones, said Debby Ross, a Hillsborough County senior planner.

But they cannot simply put the brakes on development.

To families like the Johnsons, the timing is unfortunate.

"In the '90s, people have been reinventing quality of life," Jerry Johnson said. "The emphasis has shifted to homes and families as opposed to the '80s where everyone wondered, "How hard can I work and how much money can I make?' "

The Altman project still must clear some regulatory hurdles. Hillsborough County Zoning Hearing Master John Crislip plans to make a recommendation on the proposed zoning change from office to multifamily by June 26. Then the matter goes before the County Commission on July 18.

Once again, the Johnsons and their neighbors will be there to voice their concerns.

"I find myself staring out the window and thinking, "I could be looking at people in apartments in less than a year,' " Jane said, gesturing out her bedroom window at the tall trees that border her back fence.

"You can bet there will be "For Sale' signs everywhere if this happens. Everyone will have lost their dreams."