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Change set to stir quiet Lexington Oaks

Elif Fitts has a new baby in a new home in a new neighborhood.

"It's such a nice neighborhood. We hardly even hear any traffic," the young mother said from the driveway of her block-and-stucco home in Wesley Chapel's Lexington Oaks community.

But if developers are to be believed, 25,000 cars a day will pour into the neighborhood in the next couple of years.

Thirty-five acres just over the privacy wall in Fitts' back yard are the source of the predicted traffic: a large shopping center and office site.

Building will start among the oak trees in the spring with an Eckerd pharmacy at State Road 54 and Old Pasco Road.

More substantial stores would follow: The heart of the property is reserved for what could be a 171,000-square-foot "big-box" store.

Wal-Mart studied the site for one of its supercenters but rated it too small. That doesn't rule out another mega store settling there, said Dan Morris, marketing the property for The Hogan Group real estate firm.

"It could be one retail box or a combination of things," Morris said last week.

Homes in the back of a development, stores out front: It's the pattern all over Pasco County, most recently replicated in the fast-growing neighborhoods of Wesley Chapel. And it's creating conflict.

Seven Oaks residents are filling a petition to complain about a Sam's Club warehouse store that has agreed to build east of the neighborhood entrance at State Road 56 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

A mile farther south, Meadow Pointe neighbors united to fight a driveway to serve a proposed Walgreens drugstore on County Line Road.

Highway frontage generally is too valuable to sell for single-family homes. Developers save the sites for shopping centers, offices and apartments, businesses that pay a premium for road access.

But the image of smelly garbage bins, swarms of cars and delivery trucks, and inextinguishable parking lot lights is enough to turn off nearby homeowners.

The section of Lexington Oaks nearest SR 54, Del Mar Village, is most exposed to commercialization. Neighbors are starting to take note. Community watchdogs circulated a recent St. Petersburg Times story about the shopping center.

Nevertheless, Lexington Oaks, which has completed more than half of its roughly 1,200 homes, has been less outspoken than other neighborhoods, said Peter Hanzel, who is on a neighborhood "general advisory committee."

Its community development district board, which controls the neighborhood's purse, is still controlled by developer Pulte Homes.

"Unlike Meadow Pointe, we haven't developed any cohesive leadership," Hanzel said.

The biggest barrier to smart growth in Wesley Chapel has been roads, Hanzel said. The Lexington Oaks shopping site is at the junction of SR 54 and Old Pasco Road. Its curviness leaves it vulnerable to accidents.

Drawings of the development suggest store traffic will flood Lexington Oaks Boulevard, the spine of the community and its only entrance road.

"We've got a great community here, and we want to keep it that way. We want smart growth in here, not growth for growth's sake," Hanzel said.

Fitts agrees. Cradling her 6-week-old son, she admits she doesn't relish a Seven Oaks-Sam's Club style dispute.

"If it's going to be like what's happening on Bruce B. Downs, that would be terrible for us," she said.

_ James Thorner covers growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4613. His e-mail address is thornersptimes.com.

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