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Is denser development a fair price for a great view?

Gary Schraut had left Hernando County's shopping centers and subdivisions - and even the vast rock mines - far to the south.

He drove his pickup truck along County Road 491, past a pasture that rolled gracefully into the surrounding thick woods, and offered a compelling view of the future.

"What is the value of that vista being here, looking just like it does right now, not only next year but forever?" asked Schraut, a Brooksville developer and real estate broker.

That is the question he posed to the county Planning and Zoning Commission last week and one the County Commission will wrestle with at its land use meeting next month.

And, yes, commissioners must consider the value of this view because of what Schraut is asking for in exchange for preserving it - the right to develop the property with more than four times the number of lots the county currently allows.

The decision is important not only for this property - 184 acres of farmland and woods in north-central Hernando - but for the entire county.

Schraut is seeking a change to the county comprehensive plan that would allow this pattern of clustered development to be repeated on similar rural tracts, especially ones adjacent to preserved conservation land. The most immediate impact will likely be to a 250-acre parcel adjacent to the 184-acre tract that Schraut has a contract to buy.

"This bold new approach to land use for rural areas may be just the answer the farmers and owners of large tracts need to make their property profitable or desirable while leaving 50 percent of land pristine for the Nature Coast," Anna Liisa Covell, a planning commissioner, wrote on her Web log.

But Linda Prescott, an environmental activist from Hernando Beach, has a different view of Schraut's plans:

"A lot of people believe this is just a way for developers like Schraut to get into land that's rural and do whatever they want to do, and use the term conservation as an appeasement," Prescott said.

"I'm definitely in favor of conservation subdivisions, but I think he is using this as a ploy to get away from (the restrictions of) the rural land-use category."

Schraut's proposal comes at a time when county planners are dealing with an increasing number of requests to develop rural land, which covers about one-third of Hernando. Neither planners, environmentalists nor developers are entirely pleased with the current rules.

The county comprehensive plan allows one house for every 10 acres on most rural property with some 2.5- and 5-acre lots on smaller tracts. The result is homes scattered on rural highways or unpaved roads - not close enough together to make a community nor far enough apart for it to be countryside.

These widely spaced houses require the services of school buses and police and fire protection that are expensive to provide over large areas, Schraut said, and compared to dense, upscale subdivisions, they provide a meager flow of property tax revenue.

"To me, that's pure urban sprawl."

His proposal is to allow 1-acre lots on as much as half of a large rural tract in exchange for preserving the remainder. Land would be graded on nine different criteria, including its environmental value, its ability to be connected to horse or foot trails, and whether it is adjacent to already preserved land.

Schraut's property is in extreme northern Hernando, which, to environmentalists, is one of the most remote and pristine areas of the county.

To Schraut, it is virtually under siege from development:

It is about a mile east of land owned by World Woods that is being sold to a company that plans to build 1,680 housing and resort units, and northeast of Seville, where another developer has plans to build about 3,700 houses; it lies just to the north of 4,300 acres of mostly played-out mining land.

"Anybody who doesn't think that's going to be developed is not dealing with reality," Schraut said.

Partly because his property abuts the Citrus Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest, it meets eight of the standards for rural clustering, qualifying it for the highest density, a total of 0.425 units per acre.

If the county and the state Department of Community Affairs, which reviews all comprehensive plan amendments, approve his plan, he will have the right to build a total of 78 houses on the property.

Though the land is designated for mining rather than farming on the comprehensive plan, the allowed development density is the same. He currently has the right to divide into 18 lots.

The 0.425 figure was the planning commission's compromise between Schraut's original request for a density that would allow him to build 92 houses and the county planning staff's recommendation that he be granted only 55.

With that number of lots, Schraut said, his plan would not be feasible.

He bought the land last year for $2.2-million and estimates he could sell its 10-acre parcels for about $27,000, for a total of $5-million. The 55 1-acre lots would probably go for about $100,000, he said, or a total of $5.5-million, from which he would subtract the cost of building paved roads.

Even if he were able to sell the lots for $125,000, he said, he would make "only" $1.5-million more than selling it as acreage.

"I'm not saying $1.5-million is not a lot of money," he said. "But the reward has to be significant or why take the risk."

Paul Wieczorek, the county planner who reviews comprehensive plan changes, said he backs the compromise number. This is partly because the traditional method of preserving environmentally valuable land - buying the property or the development rights - has become so expensive that in recent years, the acquisition of natural land has almost ground to a halt.

"If you are able to preserve 92 acres of open space in perpetuity, you have to think what it would cost the public to do that," Wieczorek said.

That is one reason that local governments throughout the state have looked at similar plans, said Charles Pattison, director of the antisprawl group 1000 Friends of Florida.

"It has merit," he said.

But counties must also look at the more classic definition of sprawl - pockets of suburban development far removed from existing population centers and urban services.

If a county's current rules allow, for example, one house for every 2.5 acres in rural areas, then the clusters are a valuable way to control sprawl.

But if a county's standards already prevent sprawling development - and Hernando's accomplish this better than most - it might be best served by keeping the rules the way they are.

And though Schraut talked about limiting the stress on public services, 78 houses will certainly require more police and fire calls and more school bus routes than 18 houses.

"If it's not done right, you'll put suburban if not urban uses into those rural areas," he said. "It sounds like it's changing the fundamental character of the rural area, and that's a major policy question."

Dan DeWitt can be reached at or (352) 754-6114.