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A changing land // CHANGING HANDS

Lola Allen remembers the summers best.

Life on North Mobley Road meant large Sunday picnics on family-owned land around Lake Pretty.

It was one of the only spots in the bay area where black people could swim before integration. "We would ski, boat, swim and fish. It was very nice. I have wonderful memories of this place back then," said Mrs. Allen, now 69.

"My mother-in-law, Callie Allen, would charge 25 cents a head. She wanted to make it economical for whole families to have fun."

Back then, life among the orange groves was simple. The Allens knew their neighbors, got along with the white people, looked out for each other. Mrs. Allen would have been content to live at 7736 N Mobley Road for the rest of her life.

Her 10 acres, when she died, would be passed along to her children. They would give it to their children, just as, years ago, Callie Allen had given the land to Mrs. Allen and her late husband, Fred.

For more than a century, the Allen family's 65 acres on N Mobley Road were a family legacy and a source of pride.

But time is catching up with the Allen family, as it is to anyone who has enjoyed a rural lifestyle in northwest Hillsborough. Some heirs have sold their land. Others have lost theirs through bad business decisions. Old friends have died or left and strangers have moved in. A new school is coming. New subdivisions are all around.

Now Hillsborough County officials are raising questions about the Allen properties, and hinting that some of the land could lose its agricultural status. If that happens, property taxes would climb sky-high.

And so the Allens are considering something that, not long ago, would have been deemed unthinkable: selling out completely.

The edge of the world

A lot of people who commute daily on N Mobley Road did not even know it existed five years ago. Before the Veterans Expressway opened in 1995, this part of Hillsborough was at the edge of the world.

Now it is suburbia, and the land that the Allen family has farmed since the late 1800s is prime waterfront.

"When my husband died (in 1987), before I could get him buried I had real estate people over here," Lola Allen said.

She ignored the developers. But she cannot fight the government. She feels county officials are forcing her to make changes to her property that would take away the thing she treasures most: access to Lake Pretty.

What's more, officials also are paying closer attention to building code issues that were overlooked in the years when N Mobley Road was considered country.

"When this was a country place and nobody wanted to live out here, nobody cared," she said. "But now that the land is valuable, they want us to do things differently or move out."

Because she uses the land to raise cattle, Mrs. Allen qualifies for a substantial tax break through an exemption known as "greenbelt." Recently, inspectors from the county Property Appraiser's office came by and told her that the rear portion of her property did not meet greenbelt rules.

"They want me to run a fence behind my house so that my cows can have the entire lakefront," Mrs. Allen said. "My azaleas that I planted years ago will no longer be part of my yard. The animals would run the place, not me."

If she doesn't build the fence, the inspectors warned her that taxes could rise so high, she could lose the land. Her only income is her teacher's pension and she would be taxed at $600 for every foot of property that fronts the lake.

For the first time, she realized she might have to sell.

"I didn't sleep at all that night. It was very hard for me to even think in the vein of leaving," she said.

Mrs. Allen could build an inexpensive barbed wire fence with a gate, but she would have to tiptoe through a cow pasture to get to the lake.

"This is the way it's been for 53 years, but it doesn't matter," she said. "I don't want to live here if I've got to be fenced off from the lake and my children can't enjoy home the way I've enjoyed home."

Her son, Fred Allen Jr., who works for the county as a heavy equipment operator, agrees. While he does not live on N Mobley Road, he stands to inherit some of Lola Allen's land. He appreciates his family's sentimental ties to the area. But he says the reasons his family enjoyed the land are disappearing.

"Naturally it upsets us because it's our home," he said. "We were born and raised here and they've taken away the lifestyle, the way of life that made living out here so good.

"You can't even shoot a gun in the yard no more. I honestly believe if my daddy was still alive he wouldn't even want to live here no more."

Mrs. Allen's daughter, 32-year-old Lolita Malave, lives next door on an acre of lakefront land given to her and her husband by her parents.

Like her mother, Malave had planned to grow old on the land.

"Every blade of grass in my yard reminds me of my history," said Malave, who supports herself as a seamstress. "There are a lot of people my age who don't know who they are, but I can look out my door and see my ancestral history.

"I never knew my grandfather, but my grandmother lived in the old farm house across the road and I played there and saw all his old stuff. It let me know what type of man he was. Hardworking, family-oriented, prideful."

Used as collateral

Their front yard is like a family archive, with its old farm equipment and abandoned vehicles. To an outsider it might look like junk. But to the people who live here, each object has a cherished place in the family history.

In the 1800s, Dave and Callie Allen owned about 120 acres around Lake Pretty. Before Dave Allen died he sold close to half of his land, and it was never repurchased by family members.

In 1977, Callie Allen divided the remaining land between her eight children.

"I will never forget the day we all sat around the table to divide the land," Lola Allen said. "Callie said "I'm giving you all my property, but if any of my children lose this land to some white people it will be my son Wayne.' "

Her prediction was correct. According to family members, Wayne Allen, who has since died, borrowed money using his land as collateral. Unable to pay back the loan, he lost nine acres on Lake Pretty. Soon after, his son, Wayne Allen Jr., lost the one acre his father had given him in the same way.

Both parcels were picked up by Bob and Pat Schabes for a total of $322,000. They have built a 5,500 square-foot-home on the site, custom-designed with five bedrooms, five bathrooms and 30-foot ceilings.

"I know Wayne is not happy about this whole thing," said Mrs. Schabes. "He was very unhappy. He told me a number of times he grew up on this land and his daddy had given him this land and he was going to lose his heritage."

Ironically, the lack of development is one feature that drew the Schabes to N Mobley Road. They would rather see cattle, orange groves and endless pasture from their windows than one more subdivision.

"I frankly hope they don't move," said Bob Schabes. "We moved out here because we liked the rural nature of the area. I know it may have to go away, but I hope it doesn't go away any sooner than it has to."

Other Allen family members have sold their land to outsiders. In 1995, Lula Bell Allen collected $230,000 for the four acres at the corner of Hutchison and N Mobley. The land is owned by Dr. Dennis Agliano of Tampa. Right now, Agliano is using the land to raise oranges and has placed it on the market.

Across the street, between Brown Road and Van Dyke Farms, Martha Alexander and Gladys Allen have put several acres of family property up for sale. Both of them declined interviews.

For LaMarcus Larry, an Allen family member who lives next to Lola Allen, owning his land is a matter of black pride.

Still, he is not sure how long he can stay. While his greenbelt exemption appears to be safe because of a fence that encloses his house, he has had to answer questions recently about the conditions of the house.

"I would like to live here the rest of my life, but I don't think I'll be able to," said Larry, a postal worker. "I'm on a short rope. Taxes keep going up and when you call for a burn permit like you been doing for the longest time, they tell you you can't burn no more."

A long history

Historians say the Allens were the first black family to settle in the Odessa/Keystone area.

To recognize their more than 100 years of land ownership, the Friends of Citrus Park-Keystone Library presented Lola Allen and her family with a Heritage Award plaque in 1991.

The Allens are credited with establishing outlets for education, religion and recreation for blacks under segregation. Keystone Negro School, near Gunn Highway and Binder Road, was inspired by Barbara Hamilton Allen, who in the early 1920s convinced the county to build a school on an acre that she donated.

Lola Allen, a former teacher, became assistant principal of Citrus Park Elementary in 1972, a school where her husband Fred was refused admittance when he was a child. She stayed there until 1988.

Although he was one of only 11 black students in a class of about 900, Lola Allen's son, Fred Jr., was elected president of the student body at Buchanan Junior High School in 1970.

Eight years later, his sister Lolita was elected president of Future Farmers of America, then an all-white, all-male organization and the most popular club on Buchanan's campus.

"Even before integration, we lived out here and never had a problem," Lola Allen said.

Today, some members of the Allen family suspect the county is making things difficult for them so they will leave and make way for homes that will provide more tax revenue.

Warren Weathers, chief deputy property appraiser, said inspectors have been in the field checking all waterfront property that has greenbelt exemptions to make sure it is being used for agriculture.

"Our goal is to make everyone with lakefront be taxed for lakefront," said Irene Singletary, director of the property appraiser's agriculture division. "We have to bring everybody in line so everybody is treated equal and fair."

Thanks to greenbelt, a homeowner's exemption and a widow's exemption, Lola Allen pays virtually no taxes on her land. But if she does not build a fence between her house and Lake Pretty, her tax bill could run into thousands of dollars.

Weathers said the greenbelt inspectors were not ordering Mrs. Allen to build a fence; they were trying to advise her of what she needed to do in order to keep her taxes low.

Still, Lola Allen sees their visits as the strongest sign yet that she should move.

"If my county officials are going to do things like this, I don't feel safe anymore," she said. "I don't want to live here always worrying about what they'll try next to take my land from me."

Besides, leaving could be a good thing.

She figures she could live in a subdivision, walk to the store, have neighbors that she can visit, have a variety of churches to choose from.

"I don't need a whole isolating, sprawling piece of property anymore. I would be satisfied with a (single) lot. Right now I can't visit with anyone but Lolita. She's the only convenient neighbor."

Still, the thought saddens her. She remembers the good times. She remembers how hard she and her husband worked to clear the land and raise the children; how hard he worked to build their home with his own hands.

"When I put my name on the dotted line, it will be the hardest day for me because that will be the last part of Fred," she said. "I promised him that I would keep it as long as I possibly could."

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