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ACCIDENTAL ACTIVIST

If she ever has to speak in public to a large crowd, Barbara Compton knows that she would projectile vomit like her favorite South Park character, Stan Marsh.

But inside her Cobia Cay home, Compton isn't shy talking about her crash course in civic activism. This fall, the stay-at-home mom unwittingly emerged as the leader of opposition to rezoning the Ramada Inn site in Apollo Beach for eight stories of luxury condos.

She stepped into the limelight when nobody else stood up to fight.

"All the deceit and deception . . . I guess it just made me mad," Compton said.

A developer's drawing, which Compton claims wasn't drawn to scale, sparked her concerns. Compton had to learn about the county zoning process and state statutes on speaking with elected officials, called Sunshine Laws. Now she speaks with authority about both.

"It's sick that I know all this," Compton said. "You can get burned out really quick on things."

Before last summer, Compton had never organized a petition drive. In two days, she collected more than 100 signatures opposing the condos. She and her husband, Wes, are paying lawyers to counter the developers, who have hired a well-known land use attorney. They have spent several thousand dollars of their own money and received some much appreciated but unsolicited checks from community supporters.

Compton, who fears public speaking, makes her husband do the talking at county hearings. But she tells much of him what to say, and he gives her credit.

"She's really put the energy into this," said Wes Compton, noting that his wife refused to back down, even when friends warned that the developers and their attorneys would walk all over her. "She's kept a stiff chin . . . and it appears to be making a difference."

Last month, the County Commission refused to approve the Ramada Inn zoning changes.

Instead, they sent the proposal back to the drawing board to give developers and residents more time to work out their differences. Compton was elated that commissioners were listening to residents, even if they did not reject the project outright.

Compton admits that she makes an unlikely activist in big-city development battles. A small-town girl from Texas, she moved to Land O'Lakes in high school. After two years at Hillsborough Community College, she worked as an administrative assistant in Tampa.

She met her husband at work. Though he was 10 years older and a senior consultant at the company, the pair found they shared Methodist upbringings and both loved boats.

After marrying, they moved to Apollo Beach to be close to the water. Compton quit her job to take care of her daughter, but quickly was consumed with building and landscaping their new house.

In her social circle, she organized birthday dinners and boating outings. Friends marveled at her elaborate planning and attention to detail. But no one pegged her to rally the Apollo Beach community against a developer.

"This has given her a sense of maturity," said Kathleen Whisman, 57, who lives down the street and considers herself a mentor to Compton, who calls her Aunt Kathleen. "It's given her a better perspective on how little the general public knows in our neighborhoods."

The solution, Whisman noted, is to cultivate activists in a community. Compton has stumbled into the role by accident.

This spring, Compton decided to earn a license to sell real estate. Through a local firm, she learned about a condominium tower proposed for the site of the two-story Ramada Inn, which she could see from her bedroom. The height concerned her.

When local real estate agents circulated letters in support, Compton and her friend decided they could not support the height. Compton attended the first zoning hearing; she felt the stakes were too high to wait and watch. In her opinion, whatever replaces the Ramada Inn will set precedent for Apollo Beach.

Whatever goes in, she'll see it from her house. Now the view from her bedroom and dock is mostly clear sky, dense mangroves and the top of the Ramada sign.

"If this building is built, we're going to go out there and and see lights and windows and doors," she said. "Just the thought of that makes me cringe."

She worked her way through county bureaucracy, learning about the zoning process. She posted fliers to inform other residents in Apollo Beach. Compton even chartered buses to take neighbors to the meetings in downtown Tampa. Her mailing list swelled with 900 names.

As the months wore on, Compton was invited to take a leadership position with the Apollo Beach Civic Association. She even spoke out at local civic meetings.

At the final zoning hearing in December, Compton expected the worst. Developers are influential in local politics _ and could outspend her campaign.

Commissioners surprised her. They voted to send the proposal back through the zoning process. A new hearing has been scheduled for early February.

Letitia Stein can be reached at 661-2443 or lsteinsptimes.com.

BARBARA COMPTON

AGE: 33.

FAMILY: Husband, Wes Compton, 43; daughter, Jennifer Compton, 10.

PETS: Two cats, Godiva and Motor Boat, and a Yorkie Maltese named Freado, who barks loud enough for three.

NEW TOY: A tangerine-colored Mini Cooper that Compton has named Lady Marmalade.

GROWING UP IN A SMALL TOWN: "I knew people all my life. Some of those people have never left, and there's so much more out there."

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