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Farm pioneers fight for "paradise'

A Land O'Lakes farm family loathes the spread of housing developments like Sable Ridge and vows not to sell their land.

Betty Franzel could tolerate the mother bear and her cubs that raided her honey hive.

And the sandhill cranes that migrate from the Arctic each winter to squawk for bits of cracked corn.

She could even tolerate the alligator that laid in her pond like a lizardish log.

What she can't stand are the houses, hundreds of houses on small lots, each looking nearly the same in their dressing of stucco and shingle. Houses that in the not-too-distant future will bump against the barbed-wire fence of her 65-acre farm at Collier Parkway and Hale Road in Land O'Lakes.

Just last week the Franzels, Betty, 79, and her husband, Walter, 81, got a letter in the mail. It was from the county.

The letter informed them that Sable Ridge, a subdivision to the south on Collier, would soon begin clearing land for its next phase of about 250 homes.

Betty Franzel knows she can't stop Sable Ridge. But let developers try to cross the barbed-wire line, out beyond the craggy limbs of her ancient pecan trees, she said, and there will be trouble.

This is a woman who once joked about haunting her son from the grave if he sold the land to developers after her death.

"It's ridiculous. They've ruined Land O'Lakes, absolutely ruined it," Franzel says from the living room of the house she and her husband built in the 1950s. "To think of houses on my land just makes me sick."

The Franzels are Land O'Lakes pioneers. When they arrived in 1948, after Walter Franzel's service in World War II, Hale Road was nothing more than a wagon trail in the sand.

The only dwelling was a log cabin occupied by what Betty Franzel calls a "Cracker family." The Franzels turned the squatters off the land, taking the cabin as their family home.

For the past 50 years, they've built a farm that is best known today for breeding German shorthair pointers, hunting dogs that detect game birds in the brush.

In the spring, the Franzels open the gates for their thriving "U-pick" blackberry business. Off in the pasture graze 25 head of Angus cattle. Persimmon plants, blueberry and raspberry bushes and dwarf banana trees round out the food crops.

"Look at that view," Betty Franzel says as she gazes at the fishing pond partly ringed by live oak. "That's paradise."

But the past decade has brought strangers to paradise.

The citrus freezes of the 1980s were eye-openers for her neighbors, who quickly learned that housing developers paid better than juice factories.

Houses started sprouting to the south. Today, the eaves of homes from Lake Padgett Estates East loom through the thinning veil of trees.

But the Franzels stood pat. For years, they parried with the county over the extension of Collier Parkway to Hale Road. The county wanted to stick Collier in the center of the farm. The Franzels hired the best condemnation lawyer they could find.

After three years of squabbling, the county opted to take a 50-foot strip along the edge of the Franzels' farm.

A commercial developer asked to buy part of the farm at the corner of Hale and Collier. The answer: Thanks, but no thanks.

"I said, "Are you crazy?'

" Franzel said. "I'm not going to sell it for something like that."

Now comes Sable Ridge. Betty Franzel worries that construction will drive rattlesnakes into her dog kennels. She's also concerned that her 20 shorthair pointers, no small barkers, will draw complaints from the suburbanites.

"I'm going to put a sign up saying, "This is a dog kennel. If you don't like dogs don't buy'

" a house in the new neighborhood, she said.

She'll get no argument from Rick Neff, developer of Sable Ridge.

"I have a lot of respect for anybody who has the land and wants to keep it," said Rick Neff, developer of Sable Ridge. "I'm all for her. If she doesn't want to sell, I think that's great."

But developers are sure to keep dangling cash in their Franzel's faces. Betty Franzel figures she has plenty of years left to spurn their offers. Both her mother and grandmother lived till their late 90s.

"They ain't going any farther," Franzel said, looking south toward the boundary with Sable Ridge, the breeze carrying the dull roar of machinery preparing land in the distance for more new homes.

Her husband nods his head: "Not without a fight."