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Largest citrus grove to make way for homes

An 87-home subdivision will take the place of the old grove in Seminole. Before her death, the grove's owner had resisted attempts to develop the land.

The largest remaining citrus grove in Pinellas County _ once filled with orange, grapefruit and tangerine trees _ will fall to development.

Despite Margueritte Thurston's efforts to keep the land intact, it will be cleared. Eighty-six homes will be sold, and the only reminder of the past will be in the subdivision's name: Thurston Groves.

The homes will have a minimum of 2,500 square feet and sell for between $375,000 and $600,000. Construction may begin as early as spring 2001 and continue for another two years until every home in the walled community is occupied with residents, said Bea Hebert, a real estate agent who represents Thurston Property Group, which is in the final stages of buying the property from Gemm Development Corp.

The deal on the land, bordered by 102nd Avenue N, the Pinellas Trail and Old Ridge Road, could be closed as early as October. Meanwhile, Seminole is reviewing an application for the subdivision's plans.

"There was a real need for homes in that area because there is no land left," Hebert said.

Developers have planned a lake for the 37-acre community. Some trees, mostly oaks and palms, will be uprooted and scattered throughout the subdivision.

"We want to be environmentally sensitive," Hebert said.

The orange trees, many of them in poor health, will be removed.

Thurston, the grove's owner until her death at age 92 in 1998, would not have wanted her fight to save the grove to end this way.

As the grove stood in a path of progress, growth crept around it. For much of her life, Thurston dismissed pitchmen who made overtures for her property. She scoffed at their money. But her death cut a clear swath to her property.

She and her husband, J.T. Thurston, who died several years ago, had no children. The land had to be sold to pay estate taxes. Gemm Development paid $3.8-million, or $110,000 an acre. After taxes, the estate was worth about $2.3-million.

There was nothing that could be done, said Doug Williamson, a Seminole attorney who had been appointed to handle her estate until it was settled.

"She had outlived her cash," he said. "This was the only thing she had."

Thurston called it "my beautiful grove," in a 1989 St. Petersburg Times interview.

It was.

Bob Trowbridge, who grew up in orange groves around Seminole, can clearly remember it.

He was 4 or 5 years old when his family settled near what is now the old Thurston Groves in the mid 1930s. That was the time when he ate 15 or 20 tangerines a day, when his family's neighbors were the Thurstons, when his kinfolk built their home for $3,000.

"It was pretty fancy for its day," he said.

One of his three sisters, Mary Maud Sharpe, now 74, said they called the place in front of the house Wee Lake. They named it for a small depression in the land where water would gather. She and her siblings would bend a straight pin, attach it to a piece of string and fish in the "lake" that wasn't much more than a pond.

"We were lucky if something actually bit," she said.

Today, both have made peace with losing that part of their history.

"I've known this was inevitable, that this had to happen," said Trowbridge, now 67. "I just didn't know when."