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Development closing in on piece of Florida history

On the edge of an eight-lane road, by an Outback Steakhouse and Kentucky Fried Chicken, a path leads through the woods to a most unusual home.

Squeezed between a car dealership and a furniture store, an old Florida Cracker house sits preserved in time just as it was in 1886, the year it was built. There is no air conditioning, no cable TV, just a wide porch to take in the summer breeze and read.

A silver-haired lady has lived there since she was born, watching from the porch as the wilderness around her was paved with asphalt. First, they widened State Road 60, then the car and furniture dealers moved in next door. Now, they plan to surround Julia Moseley's house on all sides.

A developer wants to build 180 apartments behind Moseley's home, a place so odd in architecture and so rich in history that it's on the National Register of Historic Places.

"This is a wonderful place to live," Moseley said from her living room, where she sat surrounded by antiques and artwork. "It's close to everything, and yet you come back here and it's a retreat.

"And this development," she added, "is going to kill it."

All of Moseley's neighbors are witnessing changes, too. In her neighborhood of Limona, founded in 1876 on Seminole Indian trails, another developer wants approval to build 241 homes and 300 apartments. Earlier this year, the Hillsborough County Commission approved another 168 townhouses, even though the board's own hearing master recommended against it.

Neighbors worry about the traffic it will bring, the crowds and the environment.

"I went to my neighbor's house, and it took me 15 minutes to get back," said Pat Odiorne, president of the Limona Improvement Association, who sees traffic getting worse. "We are talking about going around the corner. I could not turn left. Think of it with 1,500 cars."

Debates over development have been going on for years, probably since Limona was first settled for its "beautiful lakes" and "clear, soft water," as surveyor E.E. Pratt described it in 1877. But the fight over Moseley's house stands out for a few reasons: Seldom is a house preserved so stubbornly, and rarely is its history so well-told.

Moseley's grandmother wrote long letters, now published in a book, about her home at the turn of the last century. Listen to what she wrote:

"At sunset when the sky changes to pinks within pinks and the lake blushes and a pink mist fills all the world far as your eyes can reach and the color in the sky spreads until all the heavenly dome above is a rosy glow, you sit entranced. You neither care to speak or be spoken to. The world seems to be in a dream of beauty and a voice might waken it."

In her book, Come to My Sunland, she describes life in old Florida. It was an age when it took a day on horse to visit Tampa, families that had been freed from slavery were still living, and, as Moseley wrote, "we have roaches here that if they could be trained are large enough to be watch dogs."

She lived in a cabin with a tin roof, a living room that was outdoors and wallpaper in her living room made from palmetto. Each room had a pet name: the living room was "the Palm," the library was "the Snug," and the porch was "The Cup and Bucket." At night, she could look out on the moonlight and hear owls call to each other.

The house remains intact, but the noises at night sound much different now. Trucks and an occasional ambulance interrupt the low roar of cars on State Road 60. Lights from the car dealership shine through the trees, even though the dealer installed a wall.

Teenagers looking for woods to sniff glue wander into her yard every so often.

Moseley does not appear afraid. A wiry old lady who won't reveal her age, she lives her own way. She raises cattle on the property for meat. She uses a bell for a doorbell. She is aghast at the idea of shopping at the Brandon Town Center, less than a mile away.

The proposed apartments next door will bring more crime and more parking lot lights, she fears. Moseley and other residents are trying to fight it. They have sat in zoning meetings for hours.

"I think the people feel there is not a whole lot we can do about it," Odiorne said.

Because of the house's status, the Historic Resources Review Board will make a recommendation on the apartment zoning next to the Moseley home. But even that board has no real power to stop progress.

"We are a nice bunch of people. We don't want to pick fights with everyone," said Bob Yarnell, a history teacher at Berkeley Preparatory School and the board's vice chairman. The board must also weigh a private property owner's rights to develop his land, Yarnell said.

The landowner, Robert Vaugh, said Moseley does not want anything to change.

"Julia has been against everything, including the Pep Boys across the street," he said.

Besides owning the car dealership by Moseley's home, he also lives in a house next door, which someday will be converted to a clubhouse for apartments.

"There is just no way you are going to please Julia Moseley," he said.

The apartment developers promised to put in walls and follow recommendations from the county's staff, but Moseley still will not yield, Vaugh said.

"What would you have me do with it?" Vaugh said of his property. "Take it to the gravesite."

That's exactly what Moseley will do. When she dies, a trust will take ownership of her 15 acres. Developers routinely offer to buy it, and even Vaugh's agents have discussed business ventures with her, she said. She always turns them down.

Money can't replace the charm and ambience of her home, where she lives almost as her grandmother did 100 years ago.

"If you don't understand that," Moseley said, "I don't know how I can explain it to you."