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Debate over adding gates at Twelve Oaks spurs interest in board

Holding the position can mean meetings lasting into the wee hours, with little glamour or recognition. It can be a job in and of itself, sometimes worked around a career.

Sitting on a special taxing district board can be such a grueling and thankless job that the organizations usually draw only a handful of civic-minded residents.

Not so in Twelve Oaks. Recent events in this large Town 'N Country subdivision have residents in such a stir that there are 12 people running for four board positions.

What divides this community is the idea of installing security gates and raising the neighborhood's annual tax assessment from $100 to $300 per home.

Many Twelve Oaks residents want to put up gates around their community, saying they would preserve property values and deter cut-through traffic in a neighborhood bordered by Hanley Road, Waters Avenue and Twelve Oaks Boulevard.

There are also many residents who do not want the gates, saying the community was never designed for such a feature. In addition, they don't want to pay more taxes.

Kay Menzel, Hillsborough County deputy supervisor of elections, said she has never seen so many people run for a special taxing district board. She said there are usually between 150 to 180 vacancies districtwide and about 45 to 65 people who qualify for them.

"This is almost unheard of," she said. "They usually have a real hard time filling these districts and their responsibilities. We've been getting a lot of calls from the people up there in Twelve Oaks, and we understand the gates have become a hot issue."

The gate issue is so hot that nearly 150 people attended a recent public hearing about the Twelve Oaks' budget, an event that usually passes quietly with little neighborhood involvement.

Rick Eldridge, who has been board president the past four years, said the neighborhood has not had a contested election in nearly 10 years. Eldridge is running for re-election and said he is glad to see some competition.

"Since I moved here, it's been one of my goals to get the people involved," he said. "This issue turned out to be one way to push that."

To build gates around the 994-home neighborhood, the Twelve Oaks Civic Association has proposed raising the annual tax assessment for at least one year. County permission would be needed to add the gates. Several plans are being discussed involving various numbers of entrances and guards. A community forum on the issue is scheduled at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 28 at Webb Junior High.

Roads in other gated communities, such as Cheval, were built by the developers and maintained by the communities. Those in Twelve Oaks were built and maintained with tax dollars, making them open to everyone.

A scenario favored by some residents is to build gates and hire guards to take note of each vehicle driving through.

The neighborhood's reaction to the gate proposal is similar to an issue in the Villages of Bayport last fall, when county commissioners approved a plan to install security gates across the two public roads leading into the 2,000-home community.

Eldridge said he hopes the residents will approve the $300 tax cap even if they don't approve the gates.

"I believe in planning and foresight," he said. "Raising the cap would allow for what we want to do. By having money available for projects the neighbors decide (the projects) they want, we save interest and don't have to borrow so much."

Taxes rose this year from $80 to $100. Residents will vote in a Sept. 3 referendum on whether to raise the cap again, to $300. Eldridge said even if the cap is set at $300, that doesn't mean the taxes would necessarily jump to that amount. "Changing the cap only changes the max that the board can tax," he said.

Depending on whom you talk to, opinion in Twelve Oaks is stacked either in support of the gates, or against them.

Max Saus, who decided to run for the special taxing district board a month ago, is in favor of putting up gates to add a sense of security. "A lot of people would like to take their communities back," he said. "We haven't had any major crime here, but we want to go back to the basics."

Greg Sanden, who moved to Twelve Oaks two years ago, wanted to be on the board before the gate issue arose. Though he is undecided on the benefits of a gate, he wonders if other alternatives could first be attempted. Sanden favors erecting speed humps or closing off Barry Road.

Other residents, agreeing that through-traffic has become a problem, don't think gates are the answer.

"We're not a growing community," said Doug MacPherson, a taxing district board member who moved to Twelve Oaks in 1989. "We're maxed out already. It's not designed to be a gated community _ we have a ballpark and a school in here. Trying to get a tax cap of $300 is ridiculous.

"The people who want the tax cap raised say they "feel' gates will cut down on crime. Well, I have a problem with people feeling with my money."

MacPherson, a candidate for state House District 58, said it would be difficult to stop anyone who wants to travel through on the public roads. He thinks drivers who have to stop to check in with a guard will become so angry that they will then speed through neighborhood streets.

The neighborhood has begun to take on the appearance of a small civil war. Signs reading "No Gate Tax" and "Vote Yes!! Gates" reflect the dissonance in the neighborhood.

MacPherson's wife, Lynda, said that is what spurred her to run for the board last month. During a June civic association meeting, MacPherson said she thought residents who oppose the gates were not being heard.

"This has divided our neighborhood," she said. "It's neighbor against neighbor. Everyone is just very disgusted."

Eldridge agrees.

"I find myself reminding my neighbors, "I am you. I'm here to represent you,'

" he said.

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