TIERRA VERDE // From "white elephant' to green enclave

Published July 1, 2001|Updated June 20, 2006

(ran Beach edition)

In its short history, this community has been best known for its wealth of marina space, its wealth of waterfront property, and, more to the point, the wealth of the people who live there.

Now a new phenomenon in Tierra Verde reveals that the partially manmade island, where almost all development has occurred in the past 20 years, is coming into its own:

Its trees are maturing.

That's a major step for a community that not so long ago was rather barren dirt and sand, thought by developers to be a "white elephant," nestled between St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach.

"The trees we planted are growing," said Billy Moore, who has owned a home and a restaurant, Billy's Stone Crab Seafood & Steak House, on Tierra Verde for 24 years.

Summing up how he and his neighbors feel about living on Tierra Verde, what Moore calls the "last outpost" of unincorporated Pinellas waterfront, Moore describes his neighbors as "happy as clams."

Part of the community's distinction comes from its lack of organized government. Though the idea of incorporating Tierra Verde as its own city is always under discussion in some circles, residents enjoy their lack of municipal taxes and the mild sense of freedom that comes from not having intense local oversight.

Sometimes, however, residents say they miss the sense of community that comes with having an organized local government.

"People are going their various and sundry ways," said Anne Anderson, a mother of three who lived on the island for 18 years with her husband, Steve. "We've got 10 private schools represented out here, so the kids aren't even going to the same school."

Tierra Verde does have an active community association, though people who live on the island disagree about how politically involved it should be. Some prefer to see the community association stick to enforcing deed restrictions and maintaining communal green spaces.

Currently, for the second time in 10 years, the community association is considering the benefits of incorporating Tierra Verde. Its officers know it might be a hard sell.

"It's difficult to keep people interested who came to an island because they didn't want to be beholden to the government," said Ed Westcott, treasurer of the community association, who bought his Tierra Verde home in 1998.

The community association is considering the services it receives from Pinellas County versus how much it pays each year in county taxes. A similar effort to get island residents to agree with such an idea failed in 1992.

"It's an issue that sometimes brings consternation on the part of people and sometimes it doesn't," Westcott said. "But we're looking at what you would get back from it and what it would cost you."

Tierra Verde has 3,574 residents, according to 2000 census numbers, and is coming into its own as a wealthy and influential neighborhood.

As with many of Pinellas County's beach communities, Tierra Verde is defined partly by the income of its residents. Forty-six percent of people in Tierra Verde have a household income of at least $75,000.

Likewise, the median home value on Tierra Verde is $159,400, which means half the homes are valued higher and half lower. Just 8.1 percent of people who live there say their homes are worth less than $75,000.

With money and some strategic planning, the island has managed to sway county and even federal officials on issues important to its residents. From new Federal Emergency Management Agency maps that lowered insurance rates to successfully warding off a large new marina, Tierra Verde has shown off its political prowess.

Tierra Verde, which means "Green Land," was far from green after developers churned up islands and bay bottoms to create it.

The island looked much like nearby pristine Fort De Soto park until the 1960s, when new residents unearthed bones and teeth. Indians had buried their dead on the island centuries earlier.

A team of developers bought the island for $5.1-million in 1951. Backed by the Murchison brothers, Texas oilmen who would eventually own the Dallas Cowboys, the developers dredged and filled the island, building sea walls in 1960 and the first homes in 1962.

Things changed in 1963, when the developers died in a plane crash over Lake Okeechobee. The Murchisons refused to sell the property piecemeal, so it sat untouched until 1977, when they teamed with another developer to finish what they had started.

Billy Moore built his popular restaurant in Tierra Verde in 1979, and he recalls just 41 homes on the island when he arrived. But things changed again in 1984, with a new Pinellas Bayway exit ramp off Interstate 275.

Suddenly, Tierra Verde was a quick drive from Tampa.

In 20 years, the island has become synonymous with the best Pinellas has to offer.

"We just love it out here," Anne Anderson said. "Every time I come over the bridge, it feels like I'm on vacation."


Tierra Verde, which means "Green Land," is a mostly manmade island made up of several smaller islands, including Cabbage Key and Pine Key.

In 1948, Life magazine called Cabbage Key, the precursor to Tierra Verde, "an idyllic but insect-infested strip of beach and mangrove jungle off Tampa Bay."

Not including Tierra Verde's hundreds of private docks, its marinas have 745 boat slips _ about one for every five people.

With 3,574 people, Tierra Verde is larger than these six barrier island beach towns: Belleair Beach, 1,751; Belleair Shore, which had 60 in 1990; Indian Shores, 1,705; North Redington Beach, 1,474; Redington Beach, 1,539; and Redington Shores, 2,238.