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Property owners try to get in the zone

Dreams of selling their land for big profits are threatened by Citrus County's strict zoning laws.

Randy Lee's father used to call it the county's "last big intersection."

Thirty years ago his dad, Ralph, bought property at U.S. 98 and U.S. 19, thinking it would be perfect for one of those new, self-serve gas stations. But Jiffy Convenience Stores came to take a look and decided to open a store off the highway in Chassahowitzka instead.

So the Lees started a welding shop, built a home and grew their business.

Now the Suncoast Parkway is on its way, with road construction crews inching through Hernando County on the way to U.S. 98 in north Hernando. Unless the state decides to expand the road through Citrus, it will end at U.S. 98 by 2001, spilling traffic just south of the Citrus line.

That's where the Lees and surrounding property owners come in. Through stroke of luck, hint of foresight or even a share of misfortune, they own pieces of the next gateway to Citrus County.

For some of them, the approaching parkway is a boon that will make their rural properties more marketable. For others, it's a reminder of the frustrations they felt when the county changed the zoning along U.S. 19 a few years ago, transforming their commercial land into residential and making it more difficult to sell the property.

"Who wants to build a house on U.S. 19?" asked Catherine Rooks Cassidy, a real estate agent who represents some property owners near the intersection.

Lee, 50, whose father died six years ago, owns what could be the prime piece of real estate among property owners at the "last big intersection." He has about 5 acres of commercial land at the northeast corner _ future home to the closest thing that Citrus County, with no existing interstates or tollways, may have to an exit ramp.

It took 30 years, but perhaps now someone will want the Lees' property for a big gas station with a mini-mart. Or a McDonald's. Or a roadside tourist information center.

"I hope somebody wants to buy my place," Lee said. "The parkway _ I'm hoping it'll be my retirement."

Land owners on the other corners are also eager to reap a return on their property investments. One is Peter Monteleone, who reluctantly acquired property on the southeast corner after a man to whom he lent money filed for bankruptcy.

The property was collateral. For Monteleone, who loaned the money by cashing in the treasury notes he and his wife had purchased to finance their retirement, selling the property means getting back his life savings.

"We've had so little contact with that property," said Monteleone, a retiree who lives in Citrus Springs. "We always thought, "Oh, well, we lost our money. We've taken our beating.' "

Unlike Lee, Monteleone already has a potential buyer for his land. A businessman wants to build _ no surprise _ a gas station at the intersection, and possibly a mini-storage facility, as well.

But Monteleone faces a different problem: Only 2 acres of his 6 acres are zoned commercial. The others are low-density residential, a land use assigned to them after the state ripped apart the county's growth plan for U.S. 19 in the early 1990s.

"The county, in their infinite wisdom, down-zoned part of it," said Mike Moore, an engineer who represents Monteleone in his effort to change the zoning on the 4 acres. "Effectively, there isn't anything the owner can do with it."

Ten years ago, the state Department of Community Affairs insisted Citrus' plans for U.S. 19 encouraged the same urban sprawl that had afflicted counties to the south.

Searching for a way to keep billboards, fast-food restaurants and convenience stores from popping up like dandelions along the U.S. 19 roadside, the DCA put a building moratorium on the highway.

Meanwhile, Citrus searched for a way out of the predicament. The conclusion _ an agreement to establish pockets of commercial activity along U.S. 19 and turn some commercial property into residential or other uses _ sent property owners wrangling over who would get to keep the commercial zoning.

In the end, the people who lost out were those like Charles Kalbfleisch, who owned a small parcel that fronted U.S. 19.

Kalbfleisch, of Dearborn, Mich., died and left his family with a piece of property that could be valuable, but isn't.

The land fronts a busy four-lane highway that is about to get busier with the approaching parkway, but it is intended for medium-density residential development. That land use allows some professional offices, but certainly not a Steak n' Shake or a Waffle House.

"If you hear of anybody who wants to purchase it," said his daughter, Sharol Liepe, "please get back with us."

County planning division director Chuck Dixon says it may be time for the county and DCA to reconsider the agreement they reached several years ago, when the Suncoast Parkway was far in the future and planners were unaware of its impacts on U.S. 19 and U.S. 98.

The agreement calls for the commercial property to be mostly developed along U.S. 19 before the county can allow the residential lots to be rezoned commercial. But that commercial property hasn't developed as quickly as some had thought it would.

Cassidy, the real estate agent, attributes the slow development to the sporadic zoning along U.S. 19 _ the type of zoning the DCA insisted on.

"It's a major thoroughfare," Cassidy said. "I think they were wrong when they came down here and rezoned our major highway."

David Griffin, a real estate agent who also represents some property owners near the intersection, said he believes the growth is coming _ and coming soon. "We've had a lot of people thinking and looking and speculating," he said.

And Moore, who represents Monteleone, said the county needs to re-evaluate commercial development along U.S. 19 before the Suncoast Parkway is opened, bringing higher levels of traffic to the thoroughfare.

"I think obviously, eventually, the county is going to have to address it," Moore said.

Lee is just happy to see the road coming, and he says he won't get too greedy when deciding when to sell his land. He knows someone who once had a good opportunity to sell a fruit and vegetable stand but held out for an even better price. Years later, he's still running the stand.

Before Lee's father bought the land that now houses Lee's Certified Welding, he would eye it on his drive from home in Dade City to work as a boilermaker in Perry.

Now that land might fund his son's retirement.

But while Randy Lee is excited about the future the parkway is bringing him, he stays out of the debate over whether the parkway is going to damage the rural Citrus lifestyle. "The parkway's going to be an advantage to me as a property owner," Lee said. "I don't know if it's going to be an advantage to the county."

Randy Lee welds a johnboat at his business, Lee's Certified Welding, which his family opened near the corner of U.S. 19 and U.S. 98 in Chassahowitzka more than 20 years ago. He hopes to sell the land and retire off the profits. Lee's property is near the Suncoast Parkway, which is under construction.

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