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Suburbia beginning to spread north of SR 52 in central Pasco

Published Feb. 18, 2015

GOWERS CORNER — The suburbanization of central Pasco is heading north.

Residential growth patterns for the past two decades primarily followed the east-west route along the State Road 54/56 corridor from Trinity to Wiregrass. That trend certainly isn't slowing, with Starkey Ranch under construction in Odessa, the Asturia development slated to add 900 homes and apartments on the former Behnke Ranch, Newland Communities planning to offer homes for sale at the massive Bexley Ranch development by year's end, and Standard Pacific homes debuting its Estacia at Wiregrass just last week.

But turn north onto Land O'Lakes Boulevard (U.S. 41), and the growth pattern is rekindled beyond Connerton and now leapfrogs State Road 52. There, about a mile and half north of the SR 52/U.S. 41 intersection — on the west side of the highway — M/I Homes is building Talavera, the first dense suburban housing tract along U.S. 41 north of the area known as Gowers Corner.

It's not the only activity in that area. Ryan Homes has a contract to purchase the 300-acre Lester's Dairy on the west side of U.S. 41, just south of SR 52. And Colliers International is marketing a 34.5-acre commercial site fronting on SR 52, just west of the intersection, that could contain a grocery or big-box anchor. The asking price: $3.59 million.

Even Wawa wants in on the action. The convenience store/gasoline station chain, known for fresh, made-to-order food, plans to build a store at SR 52 and Kent Grove Road. It would be Wawa's first Pasco store east of Little Road.

While all of those plans remain drawings on paper, MI Homes is moving dirt at Talavera and has constructed the exterior wall to its 543-acre community. The development is approved for 758 homes, the first of which should be available in three to four months, the company said.

"So much of the growth has been along the (SR) 54 corridor, basically the balance of that is being spoken for or being built out. That's the next corridor — to the north,'' said Dewey Mitchell of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Group. The SR 52/U.S. 41 area is "really not that far out anymore. It's a major intersection. It only makes sense that there would be development around that node.''

The Talavera land illustrates classic real estate booms and busts. Dr. James Gill, the well-known ophthalmologist, developer and real estate investor, acquired the 541 acres in the early 1980s from a Polk County citrus grower. The rezoning process didn't begin until 2003, and two years later the Gills family sold the tract for $14 million to a Jacksonville developer. By 2010, the developer was gone, and a Georgia-based holding company sold the parcel to investors for less than $2.3 million. That group flipped the land to M/I Homes of Tampa in 2013 for $6.1 million — close to triple the prior purchase price, but less than half of what Gills grossed.

Of course, growth isn't imminent everywhere north of SR 52, where rural land remains plentiful. Mitchell's family owns the former Saginaw Ranch, farther north on U.S. 41. The 1,500-acre site, formerly owned by the late rancher Milo Thomas, is included in Pasco County's suburban market area. It could be a prime location for a walkable community with an employment center, housing, a college site and a western connection to the county's wildlife corridor linking Crews Lake to Starkey Wilderness Park. Development of the property, however, is years if not decades away, Mitchell said.

Much of the current activity can be tied to the real estate market's recovery after the Great Recession, county improvements to the wastewater system in the vicinity and state Department of Transportation plans to start widening both SR 52 and U.S. 41 over the next five years.

"It's already got more traffic than it can handle, both of those roads,'' said Tom Chamblee, the listing agent for Colliers International. "Most of the traffic is westbound on 52 and northbound on 41 in the evening, and they almost all go past our site.''

Expanding SR 52 from two to six lanes, between the Suncoast Parkway and U.S. 41, and rebuilding the SR 52/U.S. 41 intersection is scheduled to begin in 2018. When completed, it will be a second, multilane route between U.S. 41 and the parkway — SR 54 is the other — and enhance the marketability of the Gowers Corner area to developers. The DOT's tentative five-year work plan calls for widening U.S. 41 to four lanes between Connerton Boulevard and SR 52 beginning in 2020 on. The two-lane road is susceptible to frequent late-afternoon traffic backups in the northbound lane as commuters end their workday.

Commercial development traditionally follows rooftops, but one existing business could be sitting in the catbird's seat. Villa Verde Cafe, an Italian restaurant that opened in 2010, is directly across the street from the entrance to Talavera and could be one of the earliest beneficiaries of an expanding community.

"I hope so,'' said owner Rosario Fierro. "If you put people in there, I hope they like to go out to eat.''