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The county wants the builder to get behind a plan to extend Tower Road 5.5 miles.

With a few strings still dangling, the county's top staff planners agreed Thursday to rezone 534 acres of prime real estate on the northwestern corner of State Road 54 and the Suncoast Parkway.

Today, it's still pasture and undeveloped land that belong to the Behnke family of Odessa and Tampa.

Ryland Homes wants to put 860 homes on the property, a development called Legacy.

As big as it is, Legacy is just one piece of a much larger project that the county is trying to pull off: the Tower Road extension.

The county wants to build the four-lane highway from Starkey Boulevard that would stretch eastward through Legacy, soar as a bridge over the Suncoast Parkway and join the proposed Ashley Glen Boulevard.

It's a big dream.

The idea is to provide an alternative to SR 54. Traffic planners believe that expanding roads beyond six lanes yields increasingly less benefit when it comes to relieving congestion.

So they think the 5.5-mile Tower Road extension, running roughly parallel to the north of SR 54, would provide a third east-west link between Land O'Lakes and New Port Richey.

But it would require coordinating road plans among at least four huge proposed developments: Legacy, the 2,500-acre Starkey Ranch, the 1.8-million-square-foot office park Ashley Glen and the 7,000-acre Bexley Ranch.

Legacy's owners and developers are not keen.

They just don't believe it's worth their project's while to build Tower Road.

"The Tower Road extension breaks the camel's back, so to speak," said David Smolker, the attorney representing the Behnkes.

But they agreed to set aside $3.6-million as their potential share for such a project.

County officials will revisit the issue with them once they sort out what the other players in the Tower Road project can or will do.

Officials also agreed to postpone a final decision on land that they want Ryland and the Behnkes to set aside for stormwater management purposes. Legacy will need to return to the county to get its stormwater management plans cleared.

"I'm worried about there being enough land to build (the stormwater facilities) on," said County Administrator John Gallagher.

For nearly a year, the Behnkes' proposal for Legacy languished as the developers and county officials hammered out traffic and environmental issues, including shifting the route of a wildlife corridor through the property.

The Legacy project was also slowed by a lawsuit that Carl and Jean Behnke had filed against the Pasco County Commission, among others, in December 2003.

The Behnkes were protesting the county's permit for a 12-acre landfill west of their Odessa property.

The lawsuit is still in court, but county attorneys agreed Thursday to drop a condition that would have tied Legacy to the lawsuit's dismissal.

Asked why, Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein declined to explain. County Attorney Robert Sumner could not be reached Thursday.

Now, depending on County Commission action and tying down the final details on construction plans, Legacy is on the cusp of becoming reality.

But, for patriarch Carl Behnke, it is too late.

He died May 15, at 85.

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at or (813) 909-4613.