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Mansion, properties to go up for sale Feb. 12

(ran PC edition)

An investment banker plans to auction off his property at Harbour Watch.

John and Sheryl Hill's 21-room mansion features a fitness center, an eight-person spa and heated swimming pool, an elevator, a remote-controlled fireplace in the master suite, a wine cellar that holds 1,100 bottles on its redwood racks and a panoramic view of the gulf.

"My wife's very bummed that we're moving," Hill says.

No kidding.

The 6,500-square-foot, three-story home is one of the largest in Harbour Watch, a gated community in Tarpon Springs situated where the Anclote River meets the Gulf of Mexico. The Hills had the home custom-built four years ago.

But their dream home will soon belong to someone else. Hill, an investment banker, is moving his wife and four children to Tampa so they can be closer to his new business.

On Feb. 12, Hill will auction off the mansion at 2075 N Pointe Alexis Drive along with 44 other lots he owns in Harbour Watch.

Local real estate experts say Hill could certainly make more money selling the home and lots on the open market. But Hill says time is of the essence. He needs to focus on his new company, Hyde Park Capital Partners, and move his family quickly. Besides, he said, an auction might be fun.

"I want to get out of the real estate business and be entirely focused on my company," he said. "What an auction does is you create an event, a sense of urgency and also an opportunity to get deals. All those things together hopefully create a successful auction."

This is not the first auction at Harbour Watch. The property's developer, Fairfield Communities of Little Rock, Ark., auctioned much of the property in 1998 because of financial difficulties and because the company wanted to get out of the development business.

Fairfield battled environmentalists and nearby residents in its efforts to develop Pinellas County's last large tract of gulf-front land. Then, when it finally developed the land in the late '80s, the company had trouble selling the lots.

The property, a 90-acre peninsula, was far from conveniences like supermarkets and malls. Waterfront property required expensive flood insurance. And other developments in East Lake and Palm Harbor were offering less expensive lots for new homes.

"I think the competition just ate them up," said Kirk Budd, a ReMax real estate agent in Pinellas County.

Times have changed. While the community is still secluded, the area around it has grown. The county is almost out of land for new homes, and the vacant property that remains can cost more than the parcels in Harbour Watch.

For instance, vacant waterfront lots in Myrtle Point, an upscale community in East Lake's Lansbrook, can run as high as $350,000. Similar waterfront lots in Harbour Watch have sold for almost half that amount.

"That whole area's going to just go. It has to," said Jim Wiegman, a broker and vice president at Keller Williams who has sold lots in Harbour Watch.

Location, location

Fairfield Communities touted Harbour Watch as the last great community to be built on the Gulf of Mexico, one so irresistible that its lots would sell like fried dough at the county fair.

As far back as 1982, the company planned to build 970 homes and condominiums on the property. Three years later, under pressure from local residents and environmentalists, the company scaled the project back to 572 units.

In 1989, after announcing that the market for condos was gone, Fairfield officials decided to carve the property into only 186 single-family lots.

Nine years later, when Fairfield auctioned off the unsold lots and other owners were selling, Hill was able to buy about 60 pieces of land, nearly one-third of the development. Hill declined to say what he paid for the land, but county property records indicate that he may have spent nearly $3-million.

Hill said he purchased the land because he was worried about what would happen to the subdivision and to the value of his own home if another company bought it. He installed new street lights, a playground, a putting green, a new front entrance and fountains in the freshwater lakes inside the development.

"We tried to do everything first class," he said. "I think it's one of the nicest neighborhoods in Tampa Bay."

Residents include doctors, pilots, entrepreneurs and retired business executives, as well as osprey, sea otters, wood storks and the occasional bald eagle. Manatees sometimes float near the docks in the Anclote River.

The sponge boats in the river generate more traffic than the residents, who are partial to bicycles, inline skates and their own two feet.

"I love it here," said Teresa Tagaras, a resident since 1992 who walks each morning with neighbor Sonja Eiland. "Like today, for instance, I met all my neighbors down at the playground with the kids. The moms sit and talk, and the kids play."

During the 1998 auction, Tagaras and her husband, Neil, acquired a second lot.

"I own the property behind me because I have a 7-year-old boy, and he needs space," she said.

Eiland and her husband, Doug, have lived in three homes in Harbour Watch since 1991. They like the close-knit community, she said.

"You eventually know everybody," she said. "We really enjoy the people. It's a mixture. Everybody's not cookie cutter."

Andrea Robinson said she loves the safety and security the community provides. The only drawbacks are the high maintenance fees and the long drive to her workplace in Feather Sound, she said.

Budd, the ReMax real estate agent, said he wonders if that will hinder sales during the auction.

"I don't know if people even know where it is," Budd said. "There are other areas you can build in that are not so far (north). You're not close to shopping, any of the malls. I mean, it's a beautiful area, but a long ways to do anything."

But Hill said the property provides the best of both worlds: a secluded setting not far from groceries, hardware stores and other conveniences.

Nationwide interest

Hill's real estate company, Osprey Development Corp., has spent $100,000 advertising the upcoming auction in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and local publications. The company has sent out 25,000 mailers and plenty of e-mails.

The National Auction Group Inc. of Gadsden, Ala., which touts itself as "America's trophy property auctioneers," is distributing a glitzy, six-page brochure, complete with aerial photos of Harbour Watch, internal and external shots of the 21-room mansion and glowing descriptions of the home and available lots.

"We have people from all around the country" taking an interest, Hill said. "People from Louisville, Ky., were knocking on our door to look at our house a couple of days ago."

The 24 waterfront lots and the home will be sold at absolute auction, meaning no matter what is offered, the highest bidder takes the property, Hill said. The other 20 landlocked lots will be part of the auction, too, but Hill may reject the bids and sell them on the open market.

No minimum bids are required, although bidders must register and provide certified checks for $3,000. Those wishing to bid on the mansion must provide certified checks for $50,000. The closings will be complete within 30 days of the auction, Hill said.

Beginning Jan. 29, interested parties can inspect the lots by appointment.

Hill's plans to auction the property all at once caught some of Harbour Watch's residents off-guard. But most plan to attend the auction and maybe even bid on more property.

"It was surprising at first," said Robinson, a resident since 1995. "But a lot of residents are interested. They plan on going. I figure that the type of people it will attract will be upstanding people. And all the good people who live here will still be here."

Plus, homeowners said, the more residents, the lower the maintenance fees.

Wiegman with Keller Williams called the giant auction unusual. But he expected it to be successful.

"The time is now," he said. "It's a little hidden treasure, and it's going to go."

_ Times staff writer Bryan Gilmer and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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