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Whose lakes are they, anyway?

To stroll along the shore of Mound Lake, you must first cross a field of red weeds and a barbed-wire fence. A sign bluntly warns, "Keep Out."

It is a message intended to keep people out of the water as well as off the land.

Here in Odessa, the battle over new development is as much about who uses the area's many lakes as who lives on its rural land.

At Mound Lake, a developer wants to create a 68-home gated subdivision and let every homeowner use the lake via a community park. The proposal has angered the Keystone Civic Association and scores of residents, who have long thought that only lakefront property owners should have access to the lake.

"Everyone thinks we are really selfish," said Eileen Hart, a longtime lake activist who lives on Lake Juanita. "But the fact is, when people don't own the property, they don't take care of it.

"You put a park in, and there is no way to control the residents."

In many cases, the law is on Hart's side.

In Florida, a landowner's right to control who can use a lake trumps the public's desire to use a resource it often pays to maintain, said lawyers who deal with the issue.

Though some states require public access to all navigable water, Florida law allows private landowners to block access to shoreline they own.

But that law cuts both ways. Lakefront owners also have the right to open their shoreline, and therefore the water, to more users if they choose.

In 1994, the developer of the Preserve at Lake Thomas in Land O'Lakes bought a tract of lakefront land and subdivided it into 53 lots. Just like the proposal at Mound Lake, the Lake Thomas developer wanted to build a lakefront park that every Preserve homeowner could use.

After hearing objections from neighbors, Pasco County commissioners ruled that only lakefront lot owners could have access to the lake. The developer sued, and Pasco settled out of court for $360,000, said Tim Hayes, a real estate attorney for the Preserve. No community park or boat landing was built.

On Bell Lake in Land O'Lakes, a lakefront owner pushed his property rights even further. The property was zoned for commercial use, so he opened a water sports store. The public can try out boats, water ski or pay to ride water scooters, said Diane Kuenzel, a Bell Lake homeowner.

Kuenzel and other homeowners tried to stop the store, but the law clearly allowed the landowner to use the lake as he wanted, said Kuenzel, a lawyer.

In Odessa, the opposite has happened. Lakefront owners have exerted private property rights to keep the public off the water; there are no public beaches or boat landings and no businesses on any of the many lakes in the area.

Indeed, only one lake in Hillsborough County, Lake Thonotosassa, lets outsiders in, said Jim Griffin, coordinator of Hillsborough's Lake Watch program.

To monitor water purity, Lake Watch spends about $150,000 a year in tax dollars from the county and from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Griffin said. Other entities, such as the West Coast Regional Water Authority, plan to spend as much as $1.1-million to clean lakes in northwest Hillsborough.

"That water is your water and everyone else's water," Griffin said.

It may be your water, but in Odessa you would need to jump out of an airplane to legally get to it, officials said.

Environmentalists say the public benefits from cleaning private lakes with tax money. The work helps birds and fish and boosts the value of taxable property. Lake Watch also collects data on private lakes that allows environmentalists to study water issues statewide.

"If we clean up the water in Lake Keystone, it will affect the groundwater and surface water that runs into the bay," Griffin said.

Indeed, opening lakes to the public can sometimes spoil the water government wants to preserve. Boats drag in exotic plants from other lakes. Anglers leave trash behind. Waves caused by skiing can stir up soil on the lake's bottom and help algae grow.

But more people does not always mean more pollution, said Dan Canfield, a professor at the University of Florida and the founder of Lake Watch. In Orlando, some of the cleanest lakes are surrounded by houses and condos, he said.

Indeed, the developers at Mound Lake promise strict deed restrictions that would outlaw personal watercraft such as Jet Skis and Waverunners.

"We want to be good neighbors," said Jay Fechtel, president of Lake Development Co. "We are people of our word."

Hart, the Odessa resident, said she has heard such promises before. Homeowners do not obey deed restrictions, she said, and developers turn their attention to new properties once they sell all the lots.

"Different subdivisions come in and are supposed to be so great and protect everything," Hart said, but it doesn't always work that way.

_ Times staff writer Wes Platt contributed to this report.