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Hospital continues to gobble up land

Workers built the bungalows during the 1920s, when Inverness was little more than a village and Citrus Memorial Hospital didn't even exist.

But time long ago passed these structures by. While the homes sat vacant or occupied by short-term renters, tens of thousands of people moved to Citrus County, many of them northern retirees who found subdivisions or golf course communities more attractive than downtown living.

Meanwhile, Citrus Memorial was born in the 1950s, and it has expanded in step with the population it serves ever since, gradually swallowing its neighborhood piece by piece.

Now, the inevitable has happened: Time and progress have met at Grace Street and Osceola Avenue.

Citrus Memorial recently paid about $210,000 for all or part of four lots on the northeast corner, property records show. Four residential units will be razed or moved, likely to make way for parking.

"That's probably going to be the biggest need," said Megan Carella, the hospital spokeswoman.

The hospital plans to build a two- or three-story office building soon, most likely in the parking lot just north and east of the main hospital building. The building will house the hospital's primary care offices.

Loss of existing parking, plus the hospital's inevitable growth, will put parking spots at a premium. Citrus Memorial, a 171-bed hospital that also offers emergency services and same-day surgery, already has 900 spaces, and those fill fairly quickly during the busy winter months.

The hospital's governing board is scheduled to discuss those growth plans during its next meeting at 5:30 p.m. May 18 in the administration building off Grace Street.

For years, Citrus Memorial has bought surrounding property for parking, office space or future needs. The governing board has given Charles Blasband, the chief executive officer, authority to negotiate land deals when opportunities arise.

"The board feels that it's in the hospital's best interest to get the property now," Carella said.

That's what happened in this case, when property owner George Aletras approached the hospital. It was no secret that Citrus Memorial wanted his land; the hospital had tried negotiations before.

It's unclear why Aletras chose to sell now. According to court records, he is handling the deals as personal representative for the estate of Despina Aletras. His relationship to Despina Aletras is unknown.

Aletras lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has an unlisted telephone number. The Times was unable to reach him or his local counsel, Inverness attorney Jeannette Haag, who did not return two telephone messages left at her office Thursday and Friday.

But if Aletras' reasons are unknown, the land's value to Citrus Memorial is obvious.

So, too, is the historic significance of this property, which most Citrus residents would breeze past while en route to church, the doctor's office or, of course, the hospital.

A historical expert said crews built the structures in 1924, during the "boom times" era.

They were part of Connor's Court, a collection of masonry and wood-frame bungalows in that neighborhood.

The Connor name refers to the man who had them built, Claude E. Connor, a former clerk of the circuit court. "They were rental properties for years and years," said Patricia Hancock, Connor's granddaughter, who now lives in Brooksville.

Historical expert Brenda J. Elliott noted that the homes were built about the same time as the Inverness Woman's Club, which still stands at Main and Osceola, and the Valerie movie theater, which now sits vacant on Courthouse Square.

"Inverness exhibit(ed) many of the same signs of economic prosperity of the 1920s as the rest of Florida: a building boom accompanied by civic improvements," Elliott noted in her Inverness study.

"People that lived there could walk to the bank and downtown when the drug store used to be there and the dime store used to be there," said Joe Brannen, a lifelong Inverness resident and now a top executive in his family's banking company, and a member of the hospital's governing board.

Hancock said the land passed from her grandfather to his children in the late 1950s. Many of the homes remained rental units. Then, gradually, the land was sold off.

Brannen said the homes the hospital bought have been rentals for many years. Indeed, a renter still occupies one building; Carella said the person will be allowed to stay until the lease expires.

Elliott classified the structures as historically significant, and City Council agreed. As a result, CMH will need permission from Inverness' Architectural and Aesthetic Review Committee before it can move or raze the bungalows.

If the hospital gains approval, the sailing should be smooth. The land is zoned for residential and professional use, and parking lots are permitted land uses, according to Bill Wiley, the city's director of development services.

Brannen, for one, hopes the deal goes through. "This is the highest and best use for the property," he said.

Brannen spoke not just as a hospital board member but as a lifelong Inverness resident and a realist.

Citrus County will continue to grow, and Citrus Memorial will continue to expand. But if the hospital can't grow out, it's only other option would be to build multistory parking garages.

Meanwhile, the homes sit on such small lots that building a new home or office is impractical. So, to save old homes would force the hospital to move in a direction _ up _ it doesn't want to go.

"Inverness," Brannen said, "doesn't have the urban look to it."