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Buck sees the beauty in Pasco's development

With the successful Meadow Pointe and the new Oakstead, the Florida native sees no need to slow down yet.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

Don Buck pulls his 5,000-pound German-made SUV past hunched-over landscapers and blue-jeaned construction workers into Oakstead.

Oakstead is Buck's latest project in central Pasco County. The property remains little more than fields of dirt and half-built houses interlaced with asphalt roads, yet Buck is smitten.

"Isn't this pretty looking?" he says from the wheel of his BMW, pointing at the sandy right of way leading into Oakstead, barren of plants but for a few infant oak trees.

Just as sculptors envision their completed statue in a rough block of marble, Buck sees a teeming housing community in a rough plot of ground. And in terms of the developers' art, Buck has had the uncanny ability to pick the next residential hot spot.

He did it first in Pasco County with Meadow Pointe, which at 3,500 homes helped put Wesley Chapel on the map.

Buck's Devco Development Co. bet correctly that workers at the University of South Florida and University Community Hospital would flock to reasonably priced homes over the border in Pasco. Meadow Pointe consistently ranks first or second for home sales in the whole Tampa Bay region.

Oakstead should be next on the bestsellers list. The first large development on the soon-to-explode State Road 54 corridor east of the Suncoast Parkway, Oakstead beat all competitors to market.

"They've never had a piece of property turn bad. That's a pretty nice record," said Ben Murphey, a Hillsborough developer and real estate broker who has known Buck for years.

"It's a cyclical business, and pretty soon you're going to get on the wrong side of the market. But he never has."

That knack for spotting housing trends has made Buck, who started his career as a low-level government planner in Hillsborough County, a rich man.

A Florida native who scraped by his first year of college with D's, who remains married to his high school sweetheart, Buck lives in Avila.

It's a north Hillsborough millionaires' enclave popular with sport stars, although Buck's house is worth a relatively modest half-million.

Ex-Yankee player and Seattle Mariner's manager Lou Pinella lives on his street. Corporate raider Paul Bilzerian's 30,000-square-foot, 11-bedroom mansion looms across the lake.

"Mine's the tiny house in the shadow of his house," Buck says.

He likes to tool around in a rebuilt shiny brown 1957 Chevrolet Belair. He watches football games from luxurious corporate boxes. His company gives thousands to political candidates, mostly Republicans with a pro-development bent.

After watching Buck develop about 30,000 lots in the Tampa Bay area, you'd think the 58-year-old had reached his financial goals. Not Buck.

"I'm not there yet," he says.

On a bright sunny day last week, Buck steers into the latest phase of Meadow Pointe. Through the front windshield appear rows of identical roadside mail boxes. Buck looks on approvingly.

"Mailboxes are one of my pet peeves," he says as he trolls the street in the BMW. "Everybody seems to want to outdo everybody with unique mailboxes with manatees on them."

That meticulousness is part of his business persona.

In a game measured in millions of dollars, Buck will fight county planners over a $50,000 fee. Or haggle over a few thousand dollars per acre when negotiating to sell 15 acres for a new school. Or argue that Pasco's landscaping standards will force him to plant too many trees.

But those in government vouch for Buck's fairness as a negotiator.

"He won't rip you off, but he won't let himself be ripped off either," said Mike Rapp, planning director for the Pasco school district.

Buck's attention to detail also struck Art Andrews, who has known Buck for 30 years. Andrews is the CEO of Heidt & Associates, the engineering firm that has designed most of Buck's communities.

He recalls when Buck hired Heidt to lay out a neighborhood in Hillsborough. Andrews assigned his best planning wizard, who came up with what he thought was an ideal layout. Buck had other ideas.

"Don said, "I'm not wild about the plan, but I don't have time to change it.' It was the highest compliment we ever got from him," Andrews said.

Occasionally, something gets in under his radar, like when his SUV pulls up to two abandoned mobile homes spray-painted with graffiti under an oak grove.

The buildings detract from what will be the main road to a still-unbuilt section of Meadow Pointe, but Buck is fast on his feet with a joke.

"These are our models for retirees when their Social Security runs out," he says.

Don Buck grew up in West Melbourne, near the east coast of Florida about 50 miles south of what is now the Kennedy Space Center. His grandfather made a lot of money as a developer, but Buck said his father, the "black sheep of the family," didn't live up to expectations.

Buck attended Brevard Junior College, where during his first year he made a 1.3 grade point average. Things improved when he transferred to the University of Florida. He graduated with a degree in landscape architecture.

After marrying his high school sweetheart, the former Renee Toulotte, Buck joined Hillsborough government as a junior planner regulating developers whose ranks he would later join. By 29, he had reached the position of building and zoning director.

With a change in leadership in Hillsborough, Buck skipped to the private sector, taking a job with developer Robert Sierra as part of the Shimberg housing empire.

The pair formed Devco in 1983, made all the more interesting in that Buck, as a county employee, had turned down some of Sierra's rezonings. Sierra let Buck run the company while Sierra built golf course communities with golf legend Jack Nicklaus.

"I'm managing partner for life, unless I go insane or do something that puts me in jail," Buck says.

In 1990, a group of investors came to Buck asking him to develop 2,000 acres of mostly pasture they owned over the county line in Pasco.

Despite the real estate gloom of the early '90s, Buck saw gold. The land was just north of the communities known as New Tampa. Pasco taxes were lower. So were fees to pay for such things as roads and sewers.

Buck could market a lot in Pasco for $7,000 to $8,000 below the asking price in Hillsborough. Jobs were close at USF and Interstate 75 office parks. Meadow Pointe was born.

Devco pushed the concept of "total family community." Sidewalks and bike paths, club houses and swimming pools, lots for an elementary school, day care and church: all attractive to young families.

"Don hasn't raped, pillaged and burned anywhere," said Murphey, the Hillsborough developer. "He's paid his own way."

If Buck thought his charmed life as a developer would continue uninterrupted, the words on the flier woke him up: "THE DEVIL IS COMING!!!"

"The devil" was Devco. The protesters were Land O'Lakes' residents. The object of their scorn was Oakstead.

Encouraged by home sales in Meadow Pointe that topped 300 and 400 a year, Buck turned his sights in 1999 to Land O'Lakes, which the development community expects to blossom as the Suncoast Parkway toll road takes root.

He contracted to buy 847 acres from ranchers and got down to the routine business of rezoning the land for 1,500 homes. It wouldn't be smooth.

Neighbors, many of whom live on large rural lots, rebelled against what they called cookie cutter suburban development on tiny lots. The opposition fused into a group called Citizens for Sanity.

Initially Buck seemed perplexed. Oakstead was just like Meadow Pointe, he argued. Where's the harm in that? Then he moved into action, parrying with a hostile crowd at a meeting of 150 Land O'Lakes residents.

He failed to get everything he wanted. County commissioners shrank the project to 1,200 homes. Then, settling an eight-month lawsuit from Citizens for Sanity, Buck agreed to preserve a corridor through the property for migrating animals.

"I think Don Buck has seen the light," Pasco environmental activist Jennifer Seney says. "Granted, it took a real ugly situation to slap his eyes open."

Two years later, Buck seems sore about the Oakstead uproar: The protests knocked him off his construction schedule by a year.

He finds it ironic that a neighboring land owner he assumes trashed Oakstead two years ago now wants to sell to Devco. Hunters aren't making relations any better either.

"They're still poaching on the property," Buck says with a nod toward Lake Patience Road, where most of the anti-Oakstead protesters lived. "We'll have to get the sheriff's department up here."

With Oakstead to finish and a 4,000 home expansion of Meadow Pointe in the works, Buck's got enough work to last him for years. Woe to the person who suggests he slow down.

"I look forward to getting up every morning. I hope I never retire," Buck says as his SUV zooms through the entrance to Meadow Pointe. "I feel like I'm contributing something to society."

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