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Bowen: Trying to keep the acres green amid the threat of sprawl

Published Apr. 21, 2016

Drive around northeastern Pasco County and the street signs inform you of the characteristics people are eager to preserve.

Serenity Place.

Tranquiview Lane. (So laid back they forgot the "l'' in tranquil?)

Giddyup Lane.

It brings to mind solitude, equestrian living, dirt roads, large pastures and rural lifestyles.

The roads wind among the 66,000 acres and 15,000 people in the northeast quadrant of the county, bordered by Bellamy Brothers Boulevard on the west, the Green Swamp on the east, State Road 52 on the south and the Hernando County line on the north. A decade ago, county government christened this locale as its "northeast rural area" and embedded into the land-use plan the goals of protecting and preserving the existing rural and agricultural characteristics. The idea was for future homes to be built on multi-acre lots or for parcels to be developed as conservation neighborhoods, with home sites clustered but surrounded by wide-open greenery.

Unfortunately, the ordinances enforcing the land use plan's goals never got finished (sound familiar?) as the county tackled what are considered to be more pressing matters spelled out by the Urban Land Institute. There were public meetings on the topic in 2015, but no final product. A group of citizens continues to push for those protections, and their biggest fear is that a post-election commission won't care to maintain the commitments of their predecessors in 2006. They want the current commission to act before November.

Last week, a rented van filled with nine people set out on a 70-mile trek around the rolling hills and historical landmarks in Lacoochee, Trilacoochee, Trilby, Blanton and Darby. I was the only interloper. Everyone else lives in the vicinity. We spotted an emu, Shetland ponies, a bald eagle, plenty of livestock, a roadside honey stand and a pick-your-own blueberry place. There is a community garden growing brussels sprouts, tomatoes, peppers and squash. Elsewhere, peach trees and sod farms sit atop former citrus groves.

Along the route is a tree of knowledge, where some of the locals bring lawn chairs to gather in the shade of oak trees, break bread and chew the fat. There is a supposed ex-house of ill repute. It's within walking distance of a 100-year-old church. Railroad rights of way and dilapidated buildings are remnants of the heydays of the Cummer Sons Cypress Co.'s sawmill.

Urban renewal isn't the topic of the day, even though everyone hopes Lacoochee can rebound from decades of poverty to obtain some level of prosperity via a taxing district intended to plug more money into infrastructure improvements.

The real angst is aimed at the land just across the road from the East Campus of Pasco-Hernando State College, on the outskirts of Dade City. The 247 acres are now listed for sale at just less than $2 million. The property is ground zero in the desire to keep rural northeast Pasco protected from suburban sprawl. The landowner, Wells Fargo, previously proposed to turn the empty land that features a steep hill into 307 single-family homes.

Some of the local residents like a formula limiting that to fewer than a few dozen home sites if you're going to build on 5- or 10-acre parcels. But a 300-home density is likely needed to justify the expense of extending central water and sewer lines.

The proposed development, however, apparently faces the same fate as the rural protection ordinance. It's in abeyance, having never come to the Pasco County Commission for consideration.

Not everyone buys into this desire for the government to spell out rules protecting the landscape. Some old-timers who own large tracts of land don't think their property's future should be guided by people whose tenure in the area dates only to the 1990s or later. It is a common and frequent tussle of maintaining one person's desired quality of life versus somebody else's property rights.

"There really isn't a whole lot to fight about,'' said attorney Clarke Hobby, who represents a group of families, each of whom owns at least 100 acres in the area. "Nobody on my side is looking to change the densities.''

So, if everyone agrees on that point, what's the holdup? Residents are anxious, even if market demands for new housing are centered more than 20 miles away along State Roads 54 and 56 in Pasco's southern tier.

Here's why:

The real treat of the tour were the vistas offered by the area's increasing elevations. The clouds seem be within your hand's grasp. Look eastward in the evening, and you can get an unobstructed view of the fireworks display at the Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, a 63-mile drive away.

Robert Dammers and his wife, Anne, moved to their hilltop home on Dionna Way five years ago, leaving behind the crowds of Carrollwood in favor of the 5 acres where they can keep their own horses and watch the early morning sun rise.

"We get the idea it doesn't get any better than this when you look at the view,'' Dammers said. "We'd like to keep it.''

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