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Family bristles at land buy plan

As the county plans a road serving Connerton, an attorney for the landowners, the Mertz family, plans a court fight.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002

LAND O'LAKES -- The family that founded the Publisher's Clearing House empire got something in the mail from Pasco County. And it wasn't a million-dollar oversized check from the Prize Patrol.

Twenty years ago, the Mertz family invested some of its loot from selling magazine subscriptions in more than 1,000 acres of forest and pasture in central Pasco.

Last month, Pasco confirmed it would lay a road through the property that will serve Connerton, a proposed "new town" north of the Mertz land hailed as a national model for suburban development.

With a 2003 groundbreaking looming, Terrabrook, the developer of Connerton, is eager to build the first of the project's 8,000 to 9,000 homes, two golf courses and central shopping district.

But while the new road stands to boost the value of the Mertz land, the family isn't gung ho about the route.

Last year, angry about surveyors who had hacked through a gate with chain cutters, the family barred county representatives from the property. It took a court order to end the standoff.

If the county wants to buy the land for the right of way, it will have to go to court to get it, family attorney John Grandoff informed county commissioners two weeks ago.

The construction of the 1-mile Collier Parkway Extension will isolate a fragment of the family's 1,500 acres, leaving an undevelopable wedge between a sewage treatment plant and a four-lane road.

"Connerton is behind the curtains here beating on Pasco County to get this road through," Grandoff said last week.

"We've become the ox getting gored," he added.

"Gored" could describe much of the Mertz family's relationship with the land that Harold Mertz, the late family patriarch, bought on the cheap in the early 1980s.

Mertz founded Publishers Clearing House in 1953 from the basement of his home in Port Washington, N.Y. Among his innovations was selling discounted magazine subscriptions in the mail with the lure of million-dollar sweepstakes.

The Pasco property, originally 3,355 acres, was approved in 1974 for a "new town" development called Lake Padgett Pines. The developer, former state Sen. DeCarr Covington, wanted to turn mostly forest and swamp west of Cypress Creek into 8,800 homes, factories, shopping centers and schools.

It never happened. The economy turned sour in the face of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. With gas scarcer, owning a house in what was then a distant suburb lost its appeal.

"That 1974 recession just brought everything to a halt," former County Property Appraiser Ted Williams said.

Covington defaulted on repaying bonds to finance roads and bridges. Bond holders accused the senator of bilking them out of millions. Covington was tossed in jail, but a judge eventually dismissed the charges in 1980.

Mertz jumped in to pick up most of the land via tax auctions and outright purchases. But he soon found himself engulfed by angry creditors, too.

It began when Mertz sued to cease paying millions in road and bridge assessments on the land, complaining he gained almost nothing from the payments. Bond holders, for whom the assessments meant getting their money back, retaliated with lawsuits of their own.

Mertz died in October 1983, but the legal knots weren't untangled until his heirs compromised in December 1987: They would sell the property but keep only about half the money. The rest would replenish bond holders.

Ultimately, one of the beneficiaries was the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which in 1991 bought 1,431 acres on the eastern half of the property for $3.4-million. That land become part of a buffer around Cypress Creek, vital as a daily source of millions of gallons of drinking water.

Despite ads that appeared in the Wall Street Journal classified section, the rest of the land has stayed in the hands of Harold Mertz's relatives, including his widow, Esther. They've incorporated under the name 1983 Lakes Padgett Associates Ltd.

Grandoff said the Mertzes want to sell out to developers. But to avoid complicating the repayment settlement with bond holders all over the world, the family wants to sell everything at once.

Collier Parkway's extension beyond its dead end at Hale Road complicates that ambition. The right of way swallows about 30 acres of the Mertz land. Grandoff proposes an alignment that would push the route west onto county sewage treatment plant property.

County engineers said Grandoff's proposal is a poor route: It crosses more wetlands and requires buying right of way from multiple property owners as opposed to just the Mertzes.

When the case goes to court, most likely via the condemnation route, the Mertzes will likely be richly compensated, Grandoff said.

Pasco officials said they're perplexed by the family's stance: With the construction of the road, the sales price of the property could only climb. Extending Collier Parkway creates an easy commuters' link to Tampa.

"Their objections make no sense to me." County Attorney Robert Sumner said, "unless they are trying to build up attorney's fees."

Not so, said Grandoff.

"As a public entity, the government is supposed to eat the least amount of property and protect the taxpayer," he said.

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