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Proposal for town center weakened

Landowners have helped dilute a plan for a town center that is being postponed until 2005 at the earliest.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002


LAND O'LAKES -- The "Heart of Land O'Lakes" plan is undergoing quintuple bypass surgery, and its prognosis for recovery is iffy.

The community's largest landowners, including former elected officials, have helped weaken a plan to create a Florida Cracker-style identity for about 12 square miles of Land O'Lakes.

The plan's author, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, has retreated from an earlier recommendation to require Cracker-style building ornamentation such as tin roofs in Land O'Lakes.

Even more dire for supporters of Heart of Land O'Lakes, Pasco County administrators appear to be dealing the plan a slow death, postponing carrying it out until 2005 at the earliest.

"If it takes until 2005, will there be any Pasco County left?" asks Peter Gottschalk, a Land O'Lakes architect who helped shape the plan. "Certain forces want it to be as slow as possible so the status quo can continue."

He could be referring to Ted Williams, the county's former elected property appraiser and a prominent Land O'Lakes landowner.

At a Nov. 12 meeting to finalize the community plan, Williams brought former county attorney Ben Harrill, who stood out in his business suit as he jotted notes on a legal pad.

Williams said he'll "spend what's necessary" on legal fees to protect his 30 acres of commercial real estate on U.S. 41. He fears the plan would deprive him of control. All together, millions of dollars are at stake.

"I think a small handful of people decided they were going to redo central Pasco," Williams said last week. "I don't think they can do that."

Politically speaking, Gottschalk and his fellow community activists have antagonized the wrong Land O'Lakes people.

Aside from Williams, once dubbed the "godfather" of Pasco Democratic politics, they've created a critic in former County Commissioner Curtis Law, who owns 90 rural acres west of U.S. 41.

Other opponents include longtime Land O'Lakes ranchers and citrus growers. They include Bob Hagman and Melton Godwin, whose family has plied Pasco politics for decades.

One local observer, noting landowners' growing uneasiness as the community plan took shape this fall, likened them to an elephant that initially didn't mind the fly on its behind. But the time came to swat the fly. That time was the Nov. 12 meeting.

Law, who took one of the mildest views, said he'll withhold his swat until he sees a final version of the plan later this year.

"Until I see the final version I can't tell you how badly I'm opposed to it," Law said.

The roots of the community plan go back two years. Activists, including local artist Brad Arthur, set to work dreaming up a down-home identity for Land O'Lakes.

They feared the community, on the cusp of a housing explosion, would become little more than a dull bedroom community of Tampa.

The focus was threefold: creating a town center somewhere near Bell Lake and School roads, beautifying the U.S. 41 commercial strip and improving the look of future homes.

This past summer, in a lightly attended brainstorming session, the group settled on a architectural style under which all of central Land O'Lakes supposedly would grow.

They called it "crackeresque" and mentioned tin roofs, balconies, columns and front porches and shade trees.

Opponents such as Law attacked the Cracker elements of the plan above all others.

"Heck, I grew up in a Cracker-style house, and I'm glad to get out of it," he said. "Anyone's who's been in a thunderstorm with a tin roof knows what I'm talking about."

Gottschalk said the focus on architectural uniformity was a tactical mistake. Better to have spent time pressing for a town center without specific architectural requirements, he said. The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council agrees.

The latest revision to the community plan will offer Land O'Lakes five or six planning options.

They range from the least intensive -- a general desire to form a town center somewhere in Land O'Lakes -- to the most intrusive -- requiring builders to follow architectural standards.

"What we're pulling together is a menu of choices," planning council staffer Gerald Smelt said.

But even the least onerous of the requirements appears destined for years of oversight and debate.

After the county commissioners receive the plan, probably in December, it heads to a citizens advisory committee that recommends changes to the county's main blueprint for growth, its comprehensive plan.

It's a three-year process that Gottschalk, who also sits on the advisory committee, calls "hair-raisingly slow."

"I'm in favor of doing it quickly," Gottschalk said in support of bypassing the advisory committee to pass a Land O'Lakes plan. "The whole idea is to get it in place."

But Assistant County Administrator Bipin Parikh said county commissioners agreed to spend $20,000 on the community plan only if its approval took the slow road.

Parikh wondered: What would happen if the advisory committee, after wrapping up three years of work, envisions a different Land O'Lakes from the community plan? "These are big changes for the county to do. These are major revisions," he said.

For his part, Williams said he's preparing to "do battle" over the plan.

While holding no ill will toward the planners, Williams said he and his friends are determined to protect their property, which for most is "the biggest portion of our worldly wealth."

Said Williams: "I don't think most of us will let it be done if we can stop it."

-James Thorner covers growth and development. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4613. His e-mail address is thorner@sptimes.com.

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