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'He's made a huge difference' in Keystone

That's what (even) a county commissioner says of a civic leader who has served six years - enough, he says.

By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002

KEYSTONE -- Keystone Civic Association president Steve Morris spent much of the morning of Jan. 15 in downtown Tampa, complaining to county commissioners about problem projects within the rural community. He returned to his Lake Keystone home 20 miles away, ready to call it a day.

But just as he was getting comfortable, an urgent call came in from fellow activist Denise Layne. As Morris recalled Friday, Layne, president of the Lutz Civic Association, wanted him to attend a land development code meeting that night with county planners. In a matter of hours he was back on the road.

"I put on the good stuff (clothes)," he said. "I drove 30 minutes to be downtown. Paid another parking fee just to be there."

Morris wasn't whining about the drive as much as highlighting the demands of a job he has held for six hectic years.

Effective March 1, he is resigning. His story helps explain why potential successors are not rushing to take over his responsibilities.

With less than a month to go before Morris becomes an ex-officio board member for a year, no one has volunteered for the position. It's a post Morris has used as a bully pulpit for passionate fights against developers and county officials who are often viewed as threats to Keystone's rural character.

So far, the group's leadership is talking to two people, Morris said.

"They're contemplating it, but we're not holding our breath," said Morris, who has an air-conditioning business. "The problem is trying to find somebody with the schedule flexible enough to allow them to go downtown during the day when the county does its business."

Morris, 52, will be missed, say his comrades-in-arms. They praise him for helping shepherd the area through difficult issues, including major modifications to the county's comprehensive land use plan.

But they also understand why he's calling it quits.

"Steve has done this for six years. He's burned out," member Jo Schellenberg said. "He's done an excellent job. He's been very dedicated to it."

Morris has not always earned friends in official circles. But he has won admiration for his directness and knowledge of the facts.

"He's made a huge difference," said County Commissioner Jim Norman. "I guess you either love him or hate him."

Morris was not supposed to be president for so long. When he took over the presidency from Dickey Davis in 1996, the Northdale transplant had lived in Keystone only a year or two. He took over on a six-month interim basis.

The position turned into a near-full-time job, involving countless meeting and late-night calls from residents concerned about zoning and other matters.

He acknowledges that his directness can rub officials and developers the wrong way. But he said his don't-give-an-inch approach is justified.

"You can't trust the county," he said. "Every time we give one inch they take a mile."

In addition to the rezoning battles that often frustrated developers, Morris takes pride in having led efforts that will limit commercial growth in Keystone, and set residential development at one home per 5 acres.

As for his own future, he nurtures dreams of becoming a commercial helicopter pilot ferrying tourists to remote spots around North America, such as Alaska.

"I'd be content as hell doing that," said Morris, a licensed pilot who credits his wife for being patient with the demands of leadership. "I'm getting burned out."

At this point, group leaders don't seem to think the association, known for its organizational abilities, will grind to a halt without him.

"Are you kidding? We'll drag somebody into it," board member Laura Swain said. "Have you ever sat on the board of a civic association? It's like the PTA. Someone will end up running it. It's not crunch time yet."

- Josh Zimmer covers Keystone and the environment. He can be reached at 269-5314.

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