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Amid sea of change, family knows where to find land

Before all the new homes were here, before the road construction, before the battles over new taxes, there was land.

Dark, dense, swampy, hilly, flat, sandy and sunny. All the varieties of habitat that make Florida so wonderful. Almost all of it was sweetly vacant.

Naturally, that has changed, but one thing has not. No one knows this land like George Casey.

A third-generation Floridian, self-described "Cracker" and former dairy farmer and rancher, Casey has walked, driven or ridden on horseback across every piece of it. He does not have much to do with home sales, but he is the man for land in this corner of the county.

"There isn't that much left," said Kathy Erickson, owner of Century 21 East Lake Realty. "But if anyone has a question about land or where some is available or who is selling it, George is the one to call."

"He knows his stuff," said Paul Cassel, director of zoning for Pinellas County. "He knows his way around up there. He knows everybody in the world up there."

George and his wife, Joan, his partner in life and business, are modest about their accomplishments. They recently took stock of their 34 years together and decided they had been in at least eight businesses, including dairy farming, cattle ranching, land excavation, land clearance and subdivision development.

They have raised three sons, made some money, lost some and watched Pinellas County grow up around them.

The Caseys have no compunction about selling land rather than working it.

"I was raised to believe the living comes from the land, whether it be real estate sales, raising cattle, raising crops or land development," George Casey said.

Land, he said, is a tool.

But even the Caseys are running out of it. They have sold all the lots in their two Cypress Lake Estates developments, and they are feeling crowded on their 5-acre homestead off Bryan Lane. They frequently juggle several enterprises at once, but are between projects.

They are oddly idle, but likely not for long.

Beginning about 1970, at one time or another, the Caseys leased 4,500 acres in East Lake and grazed 700 head of cattle there. They used to bale hay where Ridgemoor now stands, and they remember when the pavement of East Lake Road stopped at Brooker Creek.

"You'd carry a shovel in the back of the car," George Casey said. "When you got to the bridge, you'd stop and see how deep the ruts are."

His love of the land began at his dad's dairy farm, which Wilbur Casey opened in 1945 on Ulmerton Road in Largo, about a half-mile east of U.S. 19. It closed in 1979. The property later became the Rubin Icot Center.

While the dairy was in business, George Casey got into beef cattle, running them on land north of Countryside. He kept moving his herd, staying one step ahead of development, but the subdivisions eventually caught up. He sold thecattle about a decade ago.

The Caseys still keep a token herd of 80 on leased land in Sumter County. They visit on weekends, buying a picnic lunch of Cuban sandwiches and spending the day communing with the cattle.

"It's worth a whole bottle of tranquilizers," said George Casey, who is 55.

And he still keeps David, his last Brahman bull, on leased land north of Morton Plant Mease Countryside hospital on McMullen-Booth Road. One of his sons also keeps 25 head there, and another 25 at Virginia Street and Lake Haven Road in Dunedin.

Casey estimates that his son and the Bryan family, for whom Bryan Dairy Road was named, own half the cattle left in Pinellas. The Bryans and the Caseys go way back, and today James W. Bryan remains a neighbor, friend and client.

"We're closer now at this point in time because he's trying to sell some property for us," Bryan said recently.

Bryan's mother, Pansy, owned 1,000 acres where Crescent Oaks in East Lake is now, and Bryan said his land was on the south side of Keystone. He used to operate a dairy there, back off the road and atop a hill.

Keystone Bluffs is built on property Bryan sold, and he said he still owns 43 acres at Keystone and East Lake roads. Many a retail store has tried to buy that land, he said, but county zoning rules will not allow commercial use.

George "is really cut out to be a salesman," Bryan, 66, said in a soft Florida country drawl. "Very easygoing. He doesn't push. Being a farmer, he knows a lot about the land."

Through land dealings and other interests, Casey is acquainted with some of the best-known families in the county. Like Bryan, some of them share the bond of starting out in mid-county and getting pushed north by progress.

"I tell people here I grew up in a little farming town just south of here, called Largo," Casey says with a wink.

"George and I had some dealings when he first started on his own," said Wendall Salls, whose father once owned 6,500 acres from Lake Tarpon to the Hillsborough County line. His father also owned a dairy on Highland Avenue in Clearwater, where Clearwater Community Hospital and the YMCA are now.

Salls, who is 75 and has since moved to Ocala, said he has little land left in East Lake. What he does have, Casey handles for him. Casey recently sold a tract in front of East Lake High School that Salls said he owned for 50 years. Savannah Oaks town homes are under construction there now.

"I'd take his word on it," Salls said about Casey. " "Just say it. I don't even need a handshake.' You don't find people like that."

George Feaster, the founder of Feaster Funeral Homes, knows George Casey from Boy Scouts, another great love in Casey's life. The two sit on the local Boy Scout council, and Feaster said his friend was nearly single-handedly responsible for building a Boy Scout camp in Brooksville.

"He exemplifies Scouting," Feaster said.

"You don't ever see him dressed fancy, but that's his style," Feaster said. "If you know George, accept him as he is. If he tells you it, that's how it's going to be."

The Caseys are country people. Since 1980, when they sold the dairy property in High Point, they have lived off Bryan Lane in a modest, brown, ranch-style house with a small lake they excavated themselves. The pool has been allowed to go au natural, and it overflows with plants.

Their home is between the two phases of Cypress Lakes Estates, which the Caseys developed and opened about 1986. They used to own all 110 acres there, but are down to their stamp-sized 5 acres.

They are proud of Cypress Lakes, which they modeled after Belleair, Joan's home after moving from St. Paul, Minn., as a teenager.

"Large lots, big homes, every one different," said Joan Casey, who is 54.

It has never been important to the Caseys that they own a lot of land, just that they use it.

They once owned a cabin on Lake Tarpon. They were there during a Labor Day weekend when a toilet overflowed while George was at the dairy. Joan had a car, but George had the keys.

A resourceful woman, Joan loaded her two sons into a canoe and paddled to a neighbor's home, their faithful German shepherd swimming behind them. George heard about that one for a long time.

One of the Caseys' cows also will always be a part of their lore. Just purchased at auction, she was a nervous wreck when she arrived at the JG Ranch. The Caseys unloaded her from a truck and she took off, running through a screen into the pool area of a new home in Hunters Wood.

"Here's all these ladies standing there with their drinks in their hands, having an open house," Casey said. "The cow ran right through and out the other side."

These days, the Caseys are content to look back with fond memories and move on. They say they do not have the stomach to start another subdivision, though they are exploring prospects in Athens, Ga., where one of their sons lives.

"That's his baby," George Casey said firmly, pointing to the box full of paperwork one development entails.

He said he sees more potential than ever in Pinellas, in rebuilding older, urban areas. But he has no taste for that, either.

"I don't want to go back and start over," he said. "I want to go out to the country and go to the larger pieces."

East Lake clearly is no longer the country. The Caseys are appalled at gates on communities and how in Wentworth recently, lightning jammed the gates overnight, locking residents in.

"To me, that is absolutely pathetic," Mrs. Casey said.

"We don't want to be fenced in," her husband added.

They are not sure what is next for them, but it is looks like it will not be in Pinellas.

"We have no idea what we'll be doing five years from now, but it will be interesting," George Casey promised.

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