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Builders prepare for new highway as activists battle

(ran PW, PC editions)

Housing developers are cornering property on U.S. 41 in anticipation of the construction of Ridge Road Extension, a highway project environmentalists have fought to a standstill.

Gerald and Karen Scheublein have an agreement with an undisclosed large housing developer to sell 187 acres just north of the planned highway corridor west of U.S. 41.

Their neighbor to the south, Cone & Graham, apparently has cut a deal to develop 382 acres occupied by a sand mine, a source of dirt for the company's road contracting business.

North of the Scheubleins, local developer John Dalfino has masterminded a project called Asbel Creek. Earlier this year it was approved for 450 homes on 212 acres.

And farther south, the Simpson family continues to peddle its 285-acre Five Mile Ranch, hoping to lure stucco and shingle to a grazing ground for beef cattle.

Ridge Road Extension's value to developers is obvious: The 8-mile thoroughfare would link U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes directly with the Suncoast Parkway and New Port Richey. Tampa's only a 20-minute zip down the parkway.

Housing developments approved near that section of U.S. 41 _ including a golf course community called The Groves and Connerton New Town Development _ cite Ridge Road as a residential lifeline.

Gerald Scheublein said he signed a contract with an out-of-state home builder whose name he wouldn't reveal. The deal, which would cover his pasture and tree farm with single-family homes, won't close for a year or two, he said.

"It's speculation. I feel that's exactly what it is," Scheublein said of a contract that could hinge on Ridge Road's completion.

As for the highway, construction depends on the approval of the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

A challenge from environmentalists, led by Citizens for Sanity and the Sierra Club, persuaded both agencies to withhold construction permits in 2000.

After more than two years of delays, Pasco County's permit request is scheduled for a January hearing before the water management district's governing board, Assistant County Administrator Bipin Parikh said.

Environmentalists argue the $25-million highway would sever the Serenova nature preserve, tearing up terrain favored by the endangered Florida scrub jay.

More importantly for activists, stopping Ridge Road would slow the suburbanization of thousands of acres of central Pasco cattle and citrus country, the key piece being the 15,000-acre Bexley ranch.

Even if the county gets its long-delayed permits, it expects a legal challenge from the Sierra Club and its partners. That could delay completion of the highway a couple of years.

"It will probably end up in the courts," Parikh said.