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HUGE HOUSE BRINGS BIG FEAR

A 20,000-square-foot mansion will spoil tiny Aripeka's charm, some residents worry.
Published Jul. 16, 2007

To some Aripeka residents, the structure of stone and khaki-colored siding taking shape off Osowaw Boulevard is just a big house.

They say owners Peter and Nicole Napolitano paid a fair price for the 3-acre homesite and 21 acres of salt marsh overlooking Indian Bay. The couple have the right to build what they want.

"It's their money,'' said Carl Norfleet, 65, owner of Norfleet Fish Camp and a lifelong Aripeka resident.

To others, the house is a "McMansion,'' a "monstrosity'' or even - according to Aripeka artist Arline Erdrich - "grotesque to the ultimate.''

The Napolitanos sinned once by cutting down trees and demolishing a historic home on their property, said Erdrich and some others who live or work in this coastal community on the Pasco-Hernando line.

They sinned again by replacing it with a 20,000-square-foot house that, some residents said, not only clashes with the community, but threatens it. Opulent houses drive up property values, they maintain, and will drive away middle-income residents from Aripeka, a collection of about 200 mostly modest houses with views of cabbage palms and needle grass.

"Aripeka is a mind-set, a way of life. It's a true hamlet,'' said Beverly Coe, a Silverthorn resident who has worked as a secretary in Aripeka for 22 years.

"What saddens me is the effect it's going to have on people who have lived in Aripeka for generations. It's almost the beginning of the end for them.''

Norfleet's family has lived in Aripeka long enough that his grandfather, James Kolb, built the house the Napolitanos tore down.

The original owner, E.G. Willingham, was a timber magnate from Georgia. That means that he, like Peter Napolitano - a New Port Richey lawyer well-known for sinkhole litigation - was a wealthy outsider, Norfleet said:

"That being an extremely choice piece of property, it always attracted people with money.''

One of the original home's subsequent owners, Patricia Posey - who tried unsuccessfully to list the house on the National Register of Historic Places - said it was built in the 1800s.

Norfleet puts the completion date much later, in the mid 1920s. So do records at the county Property Appraiser's Office, which state the main house and three guesthouses were all built in 1928, though this information is suspect because many historic records in Hernando have been destroyed by courthouse fires, said John Emerson, the office's chief deputy.

"That (date) might have been from asking an old fisherman when they were built,'' Emerson said.

Regardless of when it was completed, the main house was considered one of the grandest in Aripeka, Norfleet said. That was true even before John and Patricia Posey bought it in 1980 and added a second story, bringing the size of the house to 4,000 square feet, including the wraparound porches.

Patricia Posey, who sold the property for $1.1-million in 2004, said she tried to hold on to it after her divorce in the 1990s, but was undermined by neighbors who fought her plan to use the house and guesthouses as an assisted-living facility.

"They should have been standing elbow-to-elbow with me to get that assisted-living facility off the ground,'' said Posey, who teaches at Central High School.

"Now they want to whine and cry that the house is gone. I say, 'Shut your mouth.' ''

Though she defends the Napolitanos' right to build their house, she said, "My life was destroyed when I had to leave that house and watch it be torn down.''

It was also a tragedy for a county that has already lost so much of its history, said Virginia Jackson of the Hernando Historical Museum Association.

"I just can't believe anyone would tear down such a beautiful house,'' she said.

The Napolitanos did not return calls to the law office or their house in Weeki Wachee. The couple, who have four children, told Posey they needed more room than they have at their current house.

The 8,800-square-foot living area of the new house includes five bedrooms, a two-story walk-in closet, a wine cellar and a 30-by-20-foot home theater, according to plans submitted to the county.

More than 8,000 square feet on the ground floor are occupied by garages. Outside, a wooden footbridge crosses from a rear patio to an island in Indian Bay, and two tennis courts have been built next to the one guesthouse the Napolitanos left standing and restored.

A large concrete stairway leading to the front entrance reminds Erdrich of the song If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof, she said.

"You know the part, 'I'd build one set of stairs going up and one going down?' That's what they have, this ridiculous stone stairway. ... The whole thing is indecent.''

As extravagant as the house may seem in Aripeka, several residents agreed it might not raise much of a stir in the waterfront neighborhoods of St. Petersburg or Tampa.

To Norfleet, it's just a sign of a trend that has been apparent for years: the northward advance of wealth, which is changing his life more than the lives of many of the houses' critics.

Tax increases for homeowners are limited by the Save Our Homes cap. Norfleet, who owns a house, his business and several vacant lots in Aripeka, said his total property taxes have doubled in the past decade, to about $16,000 per year.

Norfleet and all six of his brothers and sisters live in Aripeka. So do many of their sons and daughters. Younger family members will benefit when their parents sell off their properties. But the ones who don't live there now will never be able to afford to move back home, he said.

"Anybody who drives through has as much right to live here as we do,'' Norfleet said. "But they sure affect us when they decide to stay.''

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6116.

BY THE NUMBERS

8,800 square feet of living area in the house being built.

30x20 -foot home theater

8,000 square feet on the ground floor occupied by garages

5 bedrooms

2 tennis courts

1 wine cellar