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School employees hope to reconstruct small piece of "old Florida'

An osprey sweeps across the clear blue sky, clasping a freshly caught fish in its talons.

Dick Sheppard, holding a blueprint of his small planned residential development, steps on a drainage pipe to view his 200 acres of mostly undisturbed Pasco County coastline.

The pipe lies on a 10-acre patch of upland surrounded by undevelopable salt marshes. That upland patch, dotted with mounds of dirt and construction debris, will soon be Ibis, a 12-lot gated community off Strauber Memorial Highway in southwestern Pasco County.

"It will be like living in old Florida," he says, looking across the expanse to Sandy Bay, north of the Anclote River.

"You're a little bit away from civilization but yet you're so close to it," adds his wife, Kathy, who is standing next to him.

The Sheppards aren't your typical developers.

They both work for the Pasco County School District. Dick, 49, coordinates a job preparation program for students, and Kathy, 46, runs a computer-assisted remediation program for adults.

The couple have spent the past four years getting the required permits to develop Ibis, a community they hope to market this summer to their friends and colleagues in the Pasco school system.

"We're going to be retiring here," Dick said. "We want to have our friends close by."

The site is one of the few coastal areas left in Pasco where traditional high-density development is still possible, said county zoning administrator Fred Lowndes.

Call it a dying breed of subdivision.

In 1990, the county restricted development in coastal areas by limiting density to one unit per 40 acres. But Ibis was not subject to that restriction because its land had been approved for development much earlier, Lowndes said.

"There are virtually no areas left to develop along the coastline," said Chuck Grey, broker for F. I. Grey & Sons Real Estate. "I think it (Ibis) will do well. Just about anything close to the water on decent property will sell."

The land was zoned for development back in 1981, when State Farm insurance agent John E. Crouch and other investors owned the property.

They had intended to develop 37 lots.

But their plans never materialized, in part because of problems getting water and sewer lines to the site. The county later extended its lines down Strauber Memorial Highway.

The property had been on the market several years when it caught the attention of the Sheppards, who live nearby.

They wanted to build a new home on 6 acres facing the Gulf of Mexico.

"We thought it would just be a nice place to retire," he said.

The owners wouldn't agree to sell a piece of the land, most of which is not developable.

So in 1991 the Sheppards bought the entire 200 acres for $367,800.

They financed the deal by taking out a mortgage on their home, which they already had paid off, and through stock market investments.

Developing Ibis would recoup some of their costs and help pay for their new home, they thought. The county had recently extended sewer lines to the area.

The Sheppards are natives of Williamstown, N.J. They went to night school at Glassboro State College while working full-time day jobs. Dick was a produce manager at a grocery store, and Kathy worked in a floral store.

In 1972, they moved to Florida to pursue master's degrees at the University of South Florida.

They worked summers, invested in the stock market, and scrimped and saved enough money to pursue their development plans.

Dick Sheppard used to teach construction and graphic arts at Bayonet Point Junior High (now a middle school), so he was able to draw up the plans for Ibis, though he hired general contractor Fitz Whitaker to do the actual development work.

The plans call for 12 lots, 85 by 170 feet, which will be sold in the $49,000 to $85,000 range. Buyers will hire their own builders to construct houses on the site.