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Not in my back farm! Keystone considers town status to preserve rural life

Keystone area resident Ashli Gates visits with goat Levi, left, and miniature donkey Lucy at her rural property on Tuesday (4/24/18) in northwest Hillsborough County.   [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times  ]
Keystone area resident Ashli Gates visits with goat Levi, left, and miniature donkey Lucy at her rural property on Tuesday (4/24/18) in northwest Hillsborough County. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Apr. 30, 2018

KEYSTONE — Most mornings, Ashli Gates can count on hearing Lucy, her miniature donkey, braying for attention outside the home her family shares with a goat, a miniature horse and chickens.

Down the road at the Golden Spirit Alpaca Ranch, it's also feeding time for almost 200 of the woolly South American mammals that roam 100 acres of pasture.

Welcome to Florida's next town.

Snuggled into northwest Hillsborough County, Keystone is a place of lakes and blueberry farms, of septic tanks, wells and two-lane roads. But it's also just a 25 minute drive from Tampa International Airport, which has developers casting covetous glances at its picturesque plots of land.

So to preserve its way of life, this rural enclave of about 15,000 people is contemplating a step normally taken by fast-growing suburbs — incorporation.

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Becoming a self-taxing village, town or city would give Keystone control over how most of its property taxes are spent. More importantly, the community would have the final say on land-use decisions and could stop Keystone from devolving into another suburb of subdivisions and strip malls.

"This is still a pocket of something that can be saved," said Joshua Butts, an insurance man who serves as vice president of the Keystone Civic Association.

Their timing may be just right.

A plan proposed by Commissioner Stacy White would help communities like Keystone with the cost of studies and other expenses required to incorporate. The plan reflects a growing concern among county leaders that unincorporated Hillsborough has become too big to manage.

Hillsborough has about 1.4 million residents with 912,000 living in unincorporated areas. Yet the county has just three cities, compared to 24 in Pinellas, 31 in Broward County and 40 in Palm Beach County.

Providing services like trash pickup, libraries and parks to people across Hillsborough's 1,200 square miles has strained resources. And the county's planning commission projects Hillsborough's overall population will rise to 2.2 million by 2040.

"It makes the county more difficult to govern and manage," White said. "The task will only become more difficult as the county grows."

White's plan would allow the county to identify communities it envisions as potential cities and designate them as municipal overlay districts. The county would help them through the process of incorporating. That includes paying for studies on how much property taxes might change.

The studies aren't cheap. State lawmakers set aside $50,000 for a Ruskin study when it considered incorporation in 2006.

The decision to incorporate would lie with voters in each community since state law requires passage by referendum. The state also would have to approve.

Brandon, Apollo Beach, Keystone and Seffner are among places with strong community identities that might want more-local governance, White said.

"We have a bucket load of people coming in here," White said. "We know where they are going to live, work and play, and we need to prepare ourselves for that."

• • •

Development is already knocking at Keystone's door.

Workers are laying water and sewer pipes for a subdivision of about 200 homes planned for Lutz Lake Fern Road inside the eastern edge of Keystone. And there is concern at the city of Clearwater's potential sale of a 425-acre tract in Keystone to a multibillion-dollar operator of mobile home parks.

Officially, the community is protected from large-scale development by the Keystone-Odessa Community Plan, a set of land rules adopted in 2001 and intended to keep Keystone a rural community.

But the development on Lutz Lake Fern Road was approved in 1990 and is grandfathered in.

The fear is that neighboring landowners can now go to the county asking to develop something consistent with the property next door, Butts said.

"The problem is the periphery," he said. "Once that happens, you get the domino effect."

People here also have noticed that sprawl is reaching other parts of Hillsborough, some of them outside the county's urban service area — the area where government functions such as roads and utilities are concentrated and development is encouraged.

Gates, the homeowner with the miniature donkey, said she cringes every time she sees a subdivision go up. She and her fiance, Doug James, moved from Westchase around 2012 to escape manicured lawns and cookie-cutter homes.

Her four-bedroom homes sits on an idyllic 2.5 acre lot surrounded by mature oaks. Her backyard is half farm, half garden. There's a screened swimming pool and a pond for fishing. But there also are pens for chickens and some baby ducks and plenty of grazing area for her animals to roam.

The farm animals help teach the couple's three kids about responsibility. Gates, 40, wanted them to have something like the childhood she experienced growing up on a cattle ranch in Myakka City.

"I feel like we have a country life that's close to the city," she said. "We need to keep our community the way it is."

• • •

Keystone's civic association has taken the lead in exploring incorporation. One recent meeting included officials from the Florida League of Cities and from nearby East Lake Fire Rescue.

The calculation for communities like Keystone is whether incorporating would mean higher property taxes and better services.

The community has a taxable value of $1.3 billion, according to the property appraiser. That amounts to about $27 million in revenues based on current rates.

But even if Keystone incorporated, most of those taxes would still go to the county to pay for countywide services like libraries, parks and mosquito control.

If Keystone wanted to avoid raising taxes, it would be left with about $6.3 million per year to run its new government, maintain roads, and pay for fire and law enforcement — typically any community's largest expenses.

"This would be a very thin layer of government, a small, low-paid town operation," Butts said.

Many small municipalities contract with sheriffs and larger fire departments for emergency services. The approach makes sense when 911 call volumes are low. In 2016, the Keystone area recorded 521 medical emergencies and 150 fire-related calls, an average of only 1.86 per day.

Still, the civic association wants faster 911 response times. County guidelines in rural areas call for the first fire engine to arrive within 10 minutes 90 percent of the time. For urban calls, it's six minutes.

Eventually, Keystone would invest in its own fire department with a station close by, Butts said.

It's still uncertain whether a majority of county commissioners will support White's plan.

During a recent discussion on White's plan, two commissioners pointed to previously unsuccessful efforts to incorporate Brandon and Ruskin as proof that incorporation isn't for every community.

"Incorporation will segregate our county at a time when we should be working to integrate our community," Commissioner Ken Hagan said.

Brenda Crumb wants more details about what incorporation would mean but she likes the idea of Keystone having more control over development.

Since about 2000, she and her husband Frank Crumb have run the Golden Spirit Alpaca Ranch on Tarpon Springs Road.

Their venture started with a few alpacas. Then her husband figured out they would need many more to make the business profitable.

Now, her ranch teems with the skittish South American camelids famed for their wool-like coat, woven into fiber to make clothes.

In addition to an annual shearing in March, the ranch boards animals and provides breeding.

The quiet of Keystone is an important part of the environment that helps the animals thrive. Crumb wants to keep it that way and hopes Keystone will remain an undiscovered gem.

"It's not to be selfish. This is an agricultural community."

Staff writer Philip Morgan contributed to this report. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.