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Dormant swath north of SR 50 booms

Though Nuzum Road is in Royal Highlands, for most of the last 30 years it looked anything but suburban.

Like almost all of the other roads in the massive development, it was just a swath of limerock in the scrubland of northwest Hernando County.

In recent years, though, Nuzum and much of the rest of Royal Highlands has been transformed. The street is now lined with new houses on landscaped yards.

The property owners say they were attracted by the low _ but rapidly climbing _ cost of lots and the freedom from rules that often govern newer developments.

"I didn't want the deed restrictions," said Robyn Dean, a 27-year-old nurse who moved to Royal Highlands a year ago.

In many subdivisions, she said, "You can't park boats in the yard. You can only have a certain number of cars. You can't have a truck with a business sign on it. You have to pay monthly dues. I couldn't live like that."

Another reason people are also snapping up lots in Royal Highlands, real estate brokers said, is that it covers such a large portion of the north side of State Road 50, where development is bound to spread.

Whatever the cause for buyers' interest, both the volume of lots sold and the prices paid are shooting up. Though that thrills real estate agents and property owners, it may also cause significant planning and environmental problems.

If Royal Highlands is ever fully developed, about 10,000 houses in the county will be built in an unimaginative, 34-year-old subdivision with no sidewalks, no sewer and water lines, and no established sites for parks or schools.

Another downside of the boom is that rising land prices are threatening the future of the Annutteliga Hammock project, one of the region's most ambitious land acquisition initiatives.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District once planned to buy 29,000 acres of natural land in northern Hernando and southern Citrus County to connect the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and the Citrus Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

Partly because it included a large section of Royal Highlands, the project has been scaled back to 14,000 acres, said Fritz Musselmann, the district's land resources director. It may well shrink again.

"We kind of evaluated it and reduced it down to this size, and we may have to re-evaluate it again," he said.

"I think the time will come when we have to take another look at the project and where we can go from here."

Royal Palm Beach Colony Inc., the developer, bought land on both sides of U.S. 19, and in 1970 won county approval to divide it into 19,000 lots.

Though some of the land was sold for GlenLakes and the Heather, Royal Palm developed the rest, building 100 miles of unpaved roads and selling almost all of the lots _ many of them to out-of-town buyers who later said they had been duped.

The number of owners who built homes was so small that the subdivision became a dumping ground for the corpses of murder victims in the 1980s.

The development's fortunes began to revive in the late 1990s. But only in the past two years has the sale of lots begun to surge. This year, 1,454 lots have been sold.

The rate of home building has not yet caught up with lot sales, said Alvin Mazourek, the county's property appraiser. Only 780 homes have been built on the subdivision's 9,940 lots.

But that number has been climbing fast. The county has issued 155 building permits so far this year for houses in Royal Highlands. A more obvious sign is the large number of homes under construction _ especially in neighborhoods south of Centralia Road.

Half-acre lots _ the standard size throughout the development _ in the southern portion of Royal Highlands have sold for as much as $50,000, Mazourek said. A more typical price in those neighborhoods is $25,000 to $30,000, a stunning sum considering lots in Royal Highlands commonly sold for $2,000 through most of the 1990s.

"You couldn't give those lots away," said County Commissioner Diane Rowden, who has lived in the subdivision for seven years.

She and her fellow residents, as well as real estate brokers, all seem to have stories about skyrocketing lot prices.

Jose DaCosta, 38, who spends his summers working as scalloper in Massachusetts and the rest of the year in Florida, bought 1{ acres on Flatwood Avenue for $18,000 in April 2003.

"I have friends that want to move down, but I tell them, "You're not going to get the same price I got,' " he said.

Sure enough, a fellow fisherman inquired about a half-acre lot near DaCosta's home and was quoted a price of $30,000, he said.

Though the prices for lots in the northern part of the development remain lower, said Gary Schraut, a Brooksville real estate broker, they are climbing just as rapidly.

"Last September, you could have lots out there for $1,200 to $3,000. Now, those very same lots can run from $8,000 to $12,000," he said.

Some of the price increases have been fueled by individuals buying up large numbers of lots. DaCosta thinks that the speculative wave may have crested, and he said he has recently seen the price of some lots come down.

"That hasn't happened in this office," said Barbara Quist, a broker who owns a Re/Max Advantage office in Spring Hill. "We have several listed (for more than $30,000). It's very exciting to us."

The prices are less thrilling to Swiftmud's Musselmann, who has been working on preserving the hammock for more than six years.

The project got off to a quick start when the state Department of Environmental Protection bought three parcels that covered 7,800 acres in 1998. The idea was to create a natural corridor, protect hammock and longleaf pine habitat, and keep land that recharges the aquifer free from development.

The project has gone slowly, partly because the land in the hammock was in so many different hands. Many of the purchases have been individual lots in Royal Highlands, Musselmann said; the 2,414 acres Swiftmud has bought came in 743 separate parcels.

But at least these lots in Royal Highlands were reasonably priced _ until recently.

"I can recall us paying $3,000 to $6,000 a lot," Musselmann said. "Now they are $9,000 and $12,000 and higher."

Swiftmud will not abandon the project, but will almost certainly scale it back. Not as much land will be set aside for aquifer recharge or habitat preservation.

Musselmann said Swiftmud may be able to create a bridge of preserved land, but it will likely be narrower than originally planned.

"If we can consolidate our holdings somehow, then at least you have a solid block of public ownership," he said.

The private areas of Royal Highlands will almost certainly experience acute growing pains, Rowden said.

The most obvious problem _ the unpaved roads _ is slowly being solved by residents themselves. They have agreed to assess themselves to pave some of the roads in the subdivision.

The pace of the road improvements is sure to increase as the population grows and property owners realize how better roads will increase the value of their lots and how inconvenient it is to live on a limerock road.

But increased population will also create a need for more collector roads, which will be built at the county's expense, Rowden said.

Some of the problems residents will simply have to live with. The county, for instance, has no plans to provide the area with sewer and water service, said Kay Adams, the county's utilities director.

That means more homeowners will be using wells, where water can be extracted for free, and septic tanks, which may eventually pollute the aquifer with nitrogen.

And planners have criticized the layout of Royal Highlands as having no community focal points. Relatively large lots mean the population is spread out over many acres.

Of course, that is one of the draws to many of the new homeowners in Royal Highlands, many of whom moved from more crowded communities.

"What I like about it is the smallest lot is one-half acre," DaCosta said. "So there's not going to be anybody building right on top of you."

Dan DeWitt can be reached at (352) 754-6116 or dewittsptimes.com.

THROUGH THE ROOF

Lot sales have skyrocketed in Royal Highlands in recent years, according to the Hernando County Property Appraiser's Office:

2002: 49

2003: 404

2004: 1,454+

+Through week of Sept. 12

Tim Donohue cuts window shims for a new home in Royal Highlands on Thursday. Since moving from Queens, N.Y., in 1991, he says he has followed the building boom from Tampa to Pasco County and Hernando County. Royal Highlands has no sewer or water lines, no sidewalks, and no established sites for parks or schools. But buyers are drawn to the half-acre lots, lack of deed restrictions and, until lately, dirt-cheap prices.

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