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THIS LAND IS THEIR LAND

Published Aug. 16, 1996|Updated Sep. 16, 2005

In the 1950s and 1960s, the boyhoods of Nick and Peter Geraci were idyllic.

They could hunt in their own forests. They could swim, ski and fish in their own lake, named for their mother.

But now their adulthoods are complicated.

Nick Geraci Jr., 46, and Peter Geraci, 42, have inherited land worth millions. They consider themselves cattle farmers, but their wealth depends on development.

Consequently, they are poised to change Lutz like no landowners since C. E. Thomas, who founded the community in 1911. That makes them a topic of conversation and much controversy, especially among neighbors in Lutz.

The Geracis' management of their properties has them mired in at least five lawsuits and a pair of administrative legal actions.

Most of that is focused on 325 acres of pasture smack on the corner of N Dale Mabry Highway and Van Dyke Road. The county designated that corner seven years ago for a regional shopping mall, but never has accepted any of the Geracis' plans for one.

A fresh plan is in the works. But time is running out. In nearby Citrus Park, another mall is on the verge of groundbreaking.

The county has approved Lake Ruth Ranch, a mile north. There, the Geracis are to sell some 780 acres to U.S. Home Corp., which can build up to 1,200 homes.

"It does seem like I have a lot more attorneys in my life than I would have ever thought I would have needed," Nick Geraci Jr. told a lawyer in 1992.

He has added new lawyers since then.

Country-bound

The family history turns on bananas and chickens.

Tampa's original Nick Geraci was an Italian immigrant who started selling produce early this century from a mule-drawn wagon in Ybor City. That enterprise evolved into N. Geraci & Co. on Hillsborough Avenue, which eventually was importing bananas into Tampa for Winn-Dixie and other supermarkets.

Its success was apparent before World War II, when one of Geraci's sons, a young Louis Geraci, moved with his first wife to Beach Park. But life amid prestige turned sour, said Barbara Francis, Geraci's second wife.

Louis Geraci loved his food fresh, and kept chickens and roosters in the yard. One day, an anonymous note was left on the front door. "You don't belong in Beach Park if you raise chickens," it said.

Thus, Geraci hatched the idea of moving to the country.

"He was furious," Mrs. Francis said. "That's what made him buy land. He was going to raise chickens if he wanted to."

Land was abundant.

Florida's 1920s land boom had collapsed and buyers could pluck off many parcels merely by paying delinquent taxes.

"A lot of people had bought property and then just let it drop," she said.

Their friends scoffed. But Geraci and his brother Nick picked property with uncanny foresight, betting Tampa would grow northward along the western flank of U.S. 41.

Over the years, they accumulated thousands of acres. They raised cattle, oranges _ and in Nick's case _ a pair of sons.

Free men

Nick and Pearl Geraci brought up their boys in a home to match the land: ranch-style, 3,500 square feet, with a view of stately cypress trees and Lake Pearl.

The boys were virtually raised outdoors. Even when Nick Geraci Sr. worked cattle, he involved his sons. There were boats for fishing, horses for riding and guns for hunting.

The house had a hidden room for 40 to 50 guns. You reached it by opening a door inside a walk-in linen closet.

The Geraci boys grew up into marksmen. Nick Jr. was a collegiate world champion with a .410-gauge shotgun, and both brothers made the All-American skeet team while at the University of Tampa.

Their father died of a heart attack in 1972 while he was in Daytona Beach for a skeet tournament.

For years, a sign on their mall site read, "Only free men have guns." They removed it after a neighbor accused them of violating a sign ordinance.

Nick Jr. and Peter have federal licenses to sell guns, including automatic weapons, and have bought hundreds for themselves and friends. Each has a private gun range.

"I believe in a semiautomatic shotgun or rifle as the first line of home defense," Nick Geraci told the Times in a 1989 interview.

He and his brother declined to be interviewed for this article and answered questions only through their lead attorney, John Lund.

Lund described the Geracis as gregarious family men whose attachment to the outdoors hasn't diminished. They aren't fans of sports, television or music, he said. They prefer boating, fishing, hunting and diving.

Nick Jr.'s $1.3-million home sits near County Line Road in southern Pasco County. Like his boyhood home, it overlooks a glistening private lake and has a gun room.

$145,000 an acre

Until the 1980s, the Geracis might have been considered land-rich and cash-poor. Bananas provided livable income, but no great wealth.

That changed in June 1985, 13 years after their father's death, when Nick and Peter Geraci accepted an $11-million cashier's check for land across N Dale Mabry Highway from what is now known as the mall site. The buyer was Calusa Trace Development Corp. and the 591 acres became the Northgate Square shopping center and Calusa Trace.

The property had made local history two years earlier. Three Hillsborough County commissioners and a lawyer went to prison for negotiating bribes to rezone the land. The Geraci brothers wound up testifying in the investigation, but were not charged.

Lund said the scandal became exposed when a consultant to the Geracis was approached about a bribe, and told the FBI. The brothers themselves, he said, "were out of the loop."

Except for Calusa Trace, the family estate has remained consolidated under Nick and Peter Geraci, legally protected even from Geraci spouses.

Between the two of them, Nick and Peter Geraci own 1,337 acres in Pasco County, 3,844 acres in southeastern Manatee County and 1,791 acres in Hillsborough County. Nearly all this is classified as farm land, and most is owned jointly by the two brothers.

Collectively, county tax assessors value the land around $20-million. But that could be absurdly low, particularly in Hillsborough.

For example, 412 acres on the mall site are valued by the tax assessor at $9,800 an acre, or $4.04-million. But until recently, the Geracis had a deal to sell 272 of those acres to a Port Richey developer for $145,000 an acre, or $39.44-million, once it was rezoned for a mall.

Lund said that agreement has been replaced by a new deal with Aronov Realty Management of Montgomery, Ala., and the price is confidential. Similarly, the Geraci brothers have a confidential deal to sell the Lake Ruth Ranch property to the Clearwater developer, U.S. Home Corp., he said.

Gardenia bushes

Like many wealthy landowners, Nick Geraci Jr. required both of his wives to sign away their rights to any Geraci land before marrying into the family. His mother did the same with her second husband.

But Nick's first wife, Kathleen, contested her antenuptial agreement as the 10-year marriage began to break up. In the 1992 settlement, she received a $250,000 home in Carrollwood, $85,000, the promise of $300,000 more, a BMW and five guns.

But the closest she came to getting any Geraci land was a requirement that her husband transplant, at his expense, eight trees and two gardenia bushes from Geraci property to her Carrollwood property.

Keeping a firm grip on the land is a Geraci tradition.

A generation earlier, 22-year-old Barbara Boshky gave up no rights when she married Louis Geraci, a brilliant adventurer twice her age, she recalls.

But three years later, as Geraci lay gravely ill with cancer, his young wife petitioned for divorce, testifying he verbally abused her.

Today, she is Barbara Francis, remarried and living in Largo. Although she received $100,000 in the divorce, Mrs. Francis contends today that she and Geraci were manipulated into a hurried divorce in 1963.

"I was railroaded," she said. "I was inexperienced, naive, with all those high-powered people."

Lund, the family attorney today, says that's false.

Records do show that the late Chester Ferguson, attorney for Louis Geraci and one of Tampa's most influential lawyers, pushed for a quick divorce. He answered Francis' lawsuit the same day she filed it. The case was heard the next morning. The divorce was granted three days later. A 20-day Florida waiting period was waived.

Louis Geraci signed a trust 17 days later , distributing his wealth. Four days later, he died.

The bulk of the estate was split between Geraci's sister Rosalie and his nephews, Nick and Peter.

Tables turned

For decades, the crown jewel of the Geraci holdings has been the mall site.

Nick and Peter Geraci decided as much in 1985 when they attached a permanent deed restriction to the sale of their Calusa Trace property, allowing commercial development on only 31 of the 591 acres. That provision significantly devalued the Calusa Trace land, but it guaranteed the brothers that their mall would never have serious competition right across the highway.

They achieved a breakthrough four years later, when Hillsborough County commissioners adopted a comprehensive plan designating only two tracts of land in north Hillsborough for new regional malls. One was in Citrus Park. The other was the Geracis'.

But the tables soon turned against the Geracis.

First, a development boom _ frenetic enough to justify two huge shopping malls in north Hillsborough in 1989 _ skidded to a virtual stop when a national recession began in 1990. Growth slowed to one-fourth the pace of the late 1980s. Today, it has recovered to only one-half that pace.

Second, county officials choosing between the two sites favored Citrus Park. The neighborhoods in that area are denser and more populous than those in Lutz.

Third, voters began electing new county commissioners who were more cautious toward development.

Finally, residents of Crenshaw Lakes, the neighborhood closest to the Geraci mall site, marshaled a sophisticated and tenacious campaign of opposition.

Phyllis Busansky, the longest-serving county commissioner, has watched the battle and generally voted against the Geracis.

"They're up against some real pros at this," she said.

Today, the Citrus Park mall is only months away from a groundbreaking, while the latest schedules proposed for the Geraci mall are six years later.

Retail experts doubt the area can sustain both.

Oil and water

Irony colors the Geracis' icy relationship with Crenshaw Lakes.

Suburbanites have moved there over the past 50 years to enjoy the same pastoral peace that the Geracis have known all their lives. And now these two vintage country ranchers propose to revolutionize the place with a mall, the ultimate institution of suburbia.

Years ago, when battles between the two sides were being fought on every front, someone attempted to broker a face-to-face reconciliation. The Geraci brothers drove to the home of the mall's arch-enemies, Richard and Bonnie Hoffman.

David Bortness, another opposition leader as president of the Lutz Civic Association, remembers the meeting as cordial and polite _ perhaps too much so. The groups were like oil and water, he said.

Richard Hoffman, a psychologist, remembered his friends being upset at the Geracis afterward.

"They were talking about the height of bushes and the height of light fixtures, and we were talking about how many hundreds of thousands of square feet of development there would be," Hoffman said.

The conflict raged through 1993 and 1994. It went before the Florida Cabinet.

One of the Geracis' final efforts to sell the County Commission on a mall plan collapsed in mid-meeting in 1994 when the Geracis' lawyers concluded, as Lund puts it, "They had already made their minds up and it didn't matter what we said."

So instead of explaining the project's latest revisions, Lund launched into a protest.

"He yelled and screamed and ranted and carried on," said Commissioner Jim Norman. "I've never seen anything like it."

Within weeks, on a Friday afternoon, contractors for the Geracis began sawing down more than 1,900 pines on their mall property.

Neighbors peppered county officials with calls because parts of the site are considered environmentally sensitive. Two county staffers arrived the next morning with an order to stop. The Geracis refused until Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez issued his own order in a meeting that afternoon at his home.

The Lutz Community News called it a "Tree Travesty." Neighbors saw it as an angry response to the mall setbacks.

Actually, the Geracis had spent months seeking an exemption from the tree-cut ban, arguing the land was agricultural. They wanted to let cows graze there, but pine straw is bad for cows, Lund said.

Although the county had refused to rezone the land for a mall, county environmental officials had contended that a mall still was the Geraci's true intent for the land, and trees would be a mall asset.

The County Commission authorized criminal prosecution of the Geracis. But a settlement soon was reached, in which the Geracis agreed to plant more than 3,000 pine seedlings.

Soon the mall issue slid out of the limelight.

The Geracis filed three lawsuits and two administrative actions challenging the county's decisions. Two years of litigation and talks have brought attorneys close to a settlement.

They are talking about a 1.28-million-square-foot mall, with a Florida cracker architectural style.

County commissioners must make the final decision on it. But first, they plan to hold yet another public hearing. It will be yet another confrontation involving Crenshaw Lakes, Nick and Peter Geraci, and the future of Lutz.

_ Times researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

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