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Neighbors fight zoning for 5D Ranch

They would like a wildlife corridor, not 227 homes on lots ranging from 2.5 to more than 5 acres, on the land.

By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 20, 2002

KEYSTONE -- High-quality development? Or high-end threat?

The name -- 5D Ranch -- evokes quaint images of horses and open fields. But with a plan that calls for dozens of 2.5- to 4.9-acre homesites, critics see a magnet for rich homeowners who could care less for countryfied living.

"Nothing more than a sales tool," says Steve Morris, former president of the Keystone Civic Association.

Morris and many of his neighbors are fighting plans for the 5D Ranch, a development with 227 homes on 1,682 acres just south of the Pasco County border.

They came out in force Tuesday night to protest the plan before a zoning hearing master. And they are working with others in the Tampa Bay area to try and have the land purchased for a wildlife corridor.

County Zoning hearing master Martin Smith is scheduled in the next three weeks to issue a recommendation on whether the Hillsborough County Commission should approve or reject the project at the Pasco County border. The board can also send the opinion back to Smith for reconsideration.

The application, concerning land owned by Kay O'Rourke, calls for homesites of varying sizes, including lots 5-acres or larger. The property, now dotted with sensitive wetlands and uplands, would be crisscrossed by horse trails and perhaps a bed and breakfast.

Brooker Creek runs through the southern end of the property, and there are serious concerns in the environmental community.

Gordon Schiff, O'Rourke's attorney, described the equestrian community as "one of the most environmentally sensitive developments that has been proposed in Hillsborough County."

Hoping to soften opposition from Hillsborough residents, he and O'Rourke are offering to place the 5-acre lots along the west, south and eastern borders. Smaller homesites would dominate the northern end abutting the Trinity development in south Pasco.

The proposal has raised eyebrows from the beginning.

Environmentalists, backed by the Tampa Bay Sierra Club, want to see the land used as a link to create a 35,000-acre wildlife corridor stretching from the Starkey Wilderness Park in central Pasco to the Brooker Creek Preserve in northeast Pinellas.

Kurt Gremley, real estate manager for the Hillsborough Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, considers the O'Rourke property a top-priority purchase. Earlier this year he said he offered her a variety of options, including outright sale and outright donation, but she never responded.

The Pasco County Commission has asked Hillsborough commissioners to preserve some of the land for the corridor as a condition of approval, according to Pasco Commissioner Peter Altman, who brought his board's resolution to Tuesday night's meeting.

Backed by an approval recommendation from the county's Department of Planning and Growth Management, Schiff sought to assure Smith that 5D Ranch would be sensitive to the property's environment.

Wetlands and uplands would be expanded, and in many cases connected with one another, he said. Schiff also repeated the contention, which infuriates opponents, that 5D Ranch would be compatible with the Keystone-Odessa Community Plan. The plan, which does not take effect until Oct. 1, is already being used as the standard for new large-lot subdivisions featuring traditional rural designs and big preservation areas.

Opponents say the project will threaten traffic, water supply and animal life.

Some pointed out Tuesday night that the average lot sizes surrounding the property were much larger than 5 acres.

"We feel the local rural culture and environment will be disrupted forever by this large ... suburban development," said Edie Dopking, owner of the Quantum Leap horse farm. She fears that the smaller homesites would attract high-end suburban buyers.

Recognizing that rezoning is a separate process from wildlife preservation, residents have been lobbying to reduce the number of smaller homesites in the 5D Ranch plan.

They got some support from the Planning Commission. That commission recommended approval of the project, but proposed limiting the number of smaller homesites to 40 percent of the property.

-- Josh Zimmer cover Keystone, Citrus Park and the environment. He can be reached at 269-5314.

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