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From a dirt lane to home, sweet home

The development battle moves east of U.S. 41 and pits city vs. county and builder vs. conservationist.

[Times photo: Maurice Rivenbark]
LandMar wants the city of Brooksvilled to annex 1,600 acres south of the city, and use 840 of those acres beginning this year for 799 homes.

By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002


South of Brooksville, near where Hope Hill Road dead ends into a dirt lane, the land to the west seems almost like the far West.

It dips steeply into a valley and then climbs up another ridge, which is covered with brown grass and sparse pines -- both saplings and mature 50-footers. Hawks can be heard in the distance, and deer prints can be seen around the pool of water that has collected in the valley.

The westernmost ridge is high enough and open enough that most of the county is visible from the top, including, near the horizon, the water tower at Hernando Beach.

* * *

Grand Haven is a large and rapidly growing development north of Daytona Beach in Flagler County, which was the fastest-growing county in the state during the 1990s. About 500 houses have been built in a community that will eventually have 1,800 of them.

Homes as large as 3,000 square feet and costing as much as $500,000 sit on small lawns. Neighborhoods are surrounded by borders of imported palm trees and native pines and palmettos.

Residents, most of them retired, play golf, walk on gravel paths and swim laps in the 25-yard pool.

* * *

As different as the two landscapes look now, the city of Brooksville and a Jacksonville developer, LandMar Group LLC, expect that they will look very much alike in a few years. LandMar, which owns Grand Haven, plans a similar development called Hampton Ridge on 840 acres between U.S. 41 and Hope Hill Road.

It will include a golf course, 799 homes and, in the future, a hotel and shopping center. That makes the scope of the project comparable to developments such as Silverthorn, Pristine Place and Hernando Oaks.

If LandMar eventually builds on the remaining 760 acres of its property, the total development would cover more land -- though probably contain fewer homes -- than the two largest subdivisions built in Hernando in the past 20 years: Seven Hills and Timber Pines.

The Brooksville City Council will vote Monday night whether to annex the entire 1,600-acre parcel and rezone the Hampton Ridge tract to allow for the development.

The council's action would mark the beginning of a governmental approval process that is expected to last at least eight months. If the project is eventually built, and most City Council members want it to be, the number of houses and their prices -- between $150,000 to $500,000 -- could alter the city of Brooksville as profoundly as the building of the Suncoast Parkway or the freezing of the orange groves.

Predictable differences of opinion have cropped up about whether these changes would be for the better.

Gary Schraut, a Brooksville Realtor and restaurant owner, said an influx of relatively wealthy homeowners would pump money into existing retail outlets and encourage the building of new ones. That would create new jobs, as would the construction of houses both in Hampton Ridge and Hernando Oaks, a new subdivision being developed on the other side of U.S. 41, just north of Powell Road.

"The ripple effect is going to be enormous," Schraut said. "I want it to start tomorrow. Does that tell you how excited I am?"

Mark Steingart, a computer network engineer, was one of several residents who attended a city Planning and Zoning Commission meeting two weeks ago to speak against the plan. Representatives from the county government also shared their concern that the council is rushing the approval of the project.

More people will oppose it, Steingart said, once they realize how drastically it will change the area's atmosphere.

"Brooksville is a unique city with a unique charm, and you're starting to see that slip away," said Steingart, who lives on Hope Hill Road, just east of the LandMar property.

"You're going to see the "Spring Hill-ification' of Brooksville, starting with this project. Brooksville will be just like any other sprawling, unplanned city in the state of Florida."

LandMar's growth

LandMar says it works hard to avoid having that kind of effect.

The company was formed in 1987 and has built several developments in the Jacksonville area. In recent years its pace of growth has accelerated. It is building projects as far north as Georgia and plans to eventually develop several subdivisions on the west side of Florida, said Ed Burr, the company's president and chief executive officer. Most of the expansion has come since 1999, when the company became a subsidiary of the giant power company, Duke Energy.

That was the year it bought Grand Haven, said Jim Cullis, the project manager. Grand Haven was a good development, he said, but LandMar has made it better environmentally and socially.

The company is building a new clubhouse as well as a walkway along the Intracoastal Waterway. Though the company could charge more for waterfront lots by excluding other residents from the waterside, creating pleasant places to meet other residents attracts all potential buyers, he said.

Marshland or strips of pines separate neighborhoods and line most of the golf fairways, which are irrigated with recycled wastewater, Cullis said.

"We have more than 500 acres in natural preserved wetlands and natural buffers," Cullis said.

But there are no plans for planting drought-tolerant plants instead of thirsty St. Augustine grass in the yards, Burr said. When Grand Haven is full, its residents are expected to use about 1-million gallons per day, Cullis said, about the same currently used by all of Brooksville.

Hampton Ridge will be developed along the same general pattern, Burr said, though with some differences designed to appeal to this area's market, which he expects to include fewer retirees and more families.

The homes will have the same general range of size and prices. The yards -- many of which are 50 feet by 125 feet at Grand Haven -- will be somewhat larger. LandMar will build fewer shuffleboard courts and more soccer fields at Hampton Ridge. It will also use reclaimed water on the golf course and in common areas, Burr said, even if it has to help upgrade the city's sewage treatment system.

The yards here are also likely to be planted in St. Augustine grass, and the development will be built in conventional style and pattern rather than incorporating new urban elements, such as a pedestrian-friendly shopping area, that some planners tout as a way to limit the negative effects of car-oriented design.

"People will have places to meet and recreate and socialize," Burr said.

"We're not going to be a new urban community. But will kids be able to ride their bikes to the park? Will people be able to get in their cars and have a quick commute to a commercial center? Absolutely."

Cullis and residents of Flagler County said Grand Haven has faced little of the opposition that has become common for developments in Hernando County.

Grand Haven was an existing development, so LandMar did not need county approval to build there. Also, though Flagler has grown rapidly -- from 28,701 to 49,832 in the 1990s -- it remains small and relatively sparsely populated.

Its residents generally welcome development, just as Hernando's did 20 years ago, as a boost to the economy.

"Grand Haven is really nice," said Margaret Sheehan, who with her husband owns a gourmet food store and is building a hotel in nearby Flagler Beach.

LandMar, as well as similar developments on the eastern side of Flagler County, have improved business, she said.

"And it brings in good people," she said. "The kind of development we want is the kind that brings in people you want as your neighbors."

Bring in the skeptics

Hernando, which has seen 30 years of rapid growth and expects more of it with the completion of the Suncoast Parkway, is home to more skeptics.

Critics of the development raise two basic objections: its location and that the city is proceeding so quickly that there is not sufficient time to thoroughly consider all of the development's implications or to allow comment from affected parties.

Hernando County's comprehensive growth plan generally attempts to focus growth between U.S. 41 on the east and U.S. 19 on the west. Though the future land-use map, which is the blueprint for development in the the county, allows some residential development to the east of U.S. 41, most of the LandMar property is designated as rural, as is the land to the east of it.

If the city annexes the property, some landowners fear this plan to control sprawl will essentially be scrapped.

"Once that door is open, my concern would be that it is not going to stop," said Nancy Jones, who lives on Batten Road, about 3 miles southeast of the LandMar property.

If the property is annexed (see accompanying story), county residents who are in line to see their views of pine trees replaced by rooftops would find themselves objecting to elected officials for whom they cannot vote.

The development has also avoided a process that is specifically designed to give neighboring governments a voice in the development of large projects.

Had plans for Hampton Ridge called for one more home, the county could argue that it should be considered a "development of regional impact," meaning it would receive the scrutiny of the Withlacoochee Regional Planning Council. It would certainly qualify as a DRI if the entire 1,600-acre parcel were developed at once.

The review process is especially appropriate in this case, said County Commissioner Diane Rowden, because the land protrudes into the county and has an obvious impact on the county's environment and infrastructure.

"They know how to come in under the wire," Rowden said of developers' efforts to avoid the DRI process.

"If they can do that, of course they are going to do it because it's going to save them time and money."

Though Rowden said she does not necessarily oppose the development, she said the city has been too hasty to rezone the property. And county staffers said rezoning should come only after the state has approved the comprehensive plan amendment the project will need.

Both Burr, of LandMar, and City Council member Joe Johnston said the review process will provide plenty of chances for the county and residents to voice their opinions. Representatives from the state Department of Community Affairs, which rules on changes in local comprehensive plans, said the comments of Hernando County's planning staff will be given special weight in the review process.

Burr acknowledged that LandMar tailored the Hampton Ridge proposal partly "so we're under the DRI threshold."

"We're big believers that development decisions are best handled on the local level. If you can deal with your local agencies rather than the state . . . (they) know their needs better than the state or the regional planning council."

Johnston said the city has not changed the way it looks at rezonings for the LandMar project. As a matter of fact, just the opposite is true, he said. The city has a well-established policy of considering rezonings and annexations simultaneously rather than after the comprehensive plan has been approved.

"Just because that's the way the county does it doesn't mean it's the way we do things," Johnston said. "I'm getting sick and tired of hearing that."

But considering the scope of the project and the pristine nature of the land, said Steingart, one of the opponents, the LandMar project deserves a different approach.

"This particular acquisition will so impact the city," he said, "it should not be completed under the standard method of doing things."

-- Dan DeWitt covers the city of Brooksville, politics and the environment. He can be reached at 754-6116. Send e-mail to dewitt@sptimes.com.

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