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Cory Lake expects road to lead to sales

(ran NTP edition)

Follow the signs along Fletcher Avenue until the homes thin out. Six miles to go, promise placards tacked to telephone poles.

Continue driving.

Pass a bait shop off the interstate. Pass a home advertising, "Chain Saw Sharpening."

As if for reassurance, the signs with pink borders keep promising, "Cory Lake Isles."

Then, suddenly, it creeps into view. The rural road turns onto brick pavement, which leads up a gentle slope past row upon row of fat Florida palms. The landscape changes utterly: from backwoods bumpkin to Fantasy Island.

No one believed homeowners would spend so much _ about $500,000 for a finished product _ on a home so far in the country. And for years, few people did.

But now Cory Lake Isles, a 600-acre gated subdivision set along finger lakes in east New Tampa, appears ready to take off, proving the lengths people will go to get out of the city without actually leaving it.

"It is so private out there," explains Rosemary Bender, a Realtor with Smith & Associates.

Located on Morris Bridge Road about six miles from the Pasco County line, Cory Lakes still is technically part of Tampa. The city annexed the development in 1985.

Staffed with 24-hour security, tennis courts, brick roads, a beach club and championship fishing in a 165-acre lake, sales in the 800-lot development began slowly but recently have shot up, Realtors said. Since 1992, 35 families have moved in.

Developer Gene Thomason expects that number to jump in December, when he completes a road that will connect the subdivision to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

Thomason is proud of the product he is selling.

On a recent visit, he eased a visitor into Cory Lake's beach club, decorated with a sea shell exterior, a kitchen for 500, and a white sand beach with canoes and a volleyball tent. Then he moved out to the lake patio and glided into his Sea Ray motorboat.

"Isn't this pretty?" he said, throttling the engine, his cellular phone ringing in his shirt pocket.

Back on land, driving along the palm trees planted in front of each home, Thomason pulled into Cachet Island, a gated enclave inside the gated neighborhood.

"It just makes you feel good, doesn't it?" he said.

Thomason has reason to smile. He banked his investment heavily on the attraction of lakefront property, choosing not to build the golf courses or country clubs used to lure families to places such as Tampa Palms and Hunter's Green.

"We don't want to be the snob community," he said. "We want to be the fun community."

To celebrate the difference, Thomason even ran television ads showing a cruise ship floating in Cory Lakes. (The ship doesn't actually fit; TV uses special effects to make a cruise ship from the Port of Tampa appear to rest in the lake, Thomason said.)

But much like Cory Lake's make-believe commercials, environmental regulators said the subdivision's natural beauty hides what officials described as "very serious" environmental damage caused by the development.

Thomason's building of a lake destroyed 20 nearby wetlands by draining them of water, officials said. The man-made lake also threatened the watershed for the Hillsborough River, the city's primary supply for drinking water, regulators said.

Officials said Thomason dug the lakes without applying for the required environmental permits.

"What he did would have never been permitable," said Don Depra, an environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

In 1988, Thomason signed a consent order requiring him to repair destroyed wetlands and agreed to pay a $10,000 fine. Depra ranked the violation as one of the most serious he has seen in Hillsborough in the last 10 years.

Thomason characterized any environmental damage as minor and said of the $10,000 fine and consent order, "It's just part of the process."

He said he had received a permit to dig borrow pits, with the understanding that the pits might later be turned into lakes.

Cory Lake Isle's environmental record may seem minor to Thomason, but to urban planners it underscores the dangers created when development spreads into the countryside.

"We have slums in large areas of Tampa, and we shouldn't be spreading public resources across such a large territory," said professor David Crane, an eminent scholar of architecture at the University of South Florida and the chief architect of Boston's redevelopment in the 1960s. "The further our development goes, the more impact it has on the natural water supply, drainage, etc."

Those public policy problems do not seem to weigh heavily on homeowners looking to move away from the city. At least not at Cory Lake Isles.

"If I wanted to be active in the city, I would have lived in the city," explained Pura Hahn, who looked for a home with her husband everywhere from Orlando to Apollo Beach.

"We have lived very secluded," she said. "We look for seclusion."

Yet, as Hahn and other residents explained, privacy does not mean isolation. While Cory Lake Isles is removed from traffic and crime, it still is only 20 minutes on the interstates from the Performing Arts Center in downtown Tampa or Brandon TownCenter.

"We are going to have it all," explained Sandi Draude, who is building a house in Cory Lakes with her husband, Tom. "And I think that's a good thing. You can have it all."