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North of bustle, tranquility loses ground

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 4, 2003

Travel north on U.S. 19 and unless you're watching signs, you may not notice that St. Petersburg has become Palm Harbor or New Port Richey. Cities flow that easily into one another along that stretch of congested highway.

You do notice by the time the roadside becomes Hernando County. By then, you see trees growing where nature put them. Traffic has thinned enough that your breathing is normal again, not stolen between unkind things muttered at drivers in a hurry to stop at the next traffic light. For the moment, you can take time to notice things that don't threaten to build the next accident around you.

But only for this moment.

If growth in this northern end of the Tampa Bay area continues at the breakneck pace of the recent past, tomorrow's driver may not notice when St. Petersburg becomes Brooksville. In 20 years, according to the Census Bureau, Hernando County's population has tripled, from 44,000 in 1980 to 130,000 in 2000.

But Jack Melton and his wife can still sit on their deck and hear nothing except for an occasional distant train whistle or the hum of a plane flying miles overhead. The Meltons are one of the few remaining farm families in the area. Melton left his native Lakeland to join the Navy and go to the University of Florida, and then he moved to Hernando County, just east of Spring Lake.

He is not fazed by the growth around him. In fact, he welcomes the convenience of the mall recently built on State Road 50. Now he and his wife of 53 years, Virginia ("She's enjoyed every minute of it," he quips), don't have to drive into Plant City or Brooksville to shop.

New people won't affect his farm operation either, he says. He is buffered enough by the size of his property that new neighbors will have no reason to complain about any of the three phases of his farm operation. He grows oranges, raises cattle and produces seeds, primarily for Bahia grass, a staple for pastures and landscaping.

Attracted to farming in the '50s when he learned that one truckload of watermelons could dwarf the $125 he was making in a month, he bought a used combine and became a farmer. Now he's 78, and the lifestyle, more than the money, keeps him there. "You bust your butt trying to farm, and they tell you you could make more money on interest."

A few miles west of Melton, Dave Cock is not as ambivalent to the changes hordes of new residents are bringing to his county. Cock, 46, moved to Spring Lake in 1982 at the front end of the rush. He bought a dozen acres, saved some money, then bought a few more. He didn't like the runaway neighborhoods in Tampa and Brandon and sought relief in Hernando County.

Cock was a natural for living in the county's open spaces. He grows his own vegetables, hunts hogs and deer and likes to let his Catahoula leopard dogs roam the fields around his property. He has no reason to worry about new neighbors yet. Abutting property belongs to relatives.

But the signs are ominous. Nearby property has already been parceled for sale. He worries that people leaving the metropolitan areas for the same reasons he did will bring with them much of what they're trying to escape.

"People (already here) are going to find out they can't have a pig or chicken on their property. (The new neighbors) may not like that pile of manure in my yard. When you pull up in my yard, the dogs are going to bark. That's what I feed them to do. I'm spreading manure on my yard. That smells like food to me."

He said he has heard of one transplant fleeing the city who magnanimously told a more seasoned resident that the crowing rooster didn't bother him -- if he could just stop him from doing it so early in the morning. Cock marvels that people can adjust to the constant noises of the city -- sirens, traffic -- but find the sounds they hear in the country -- birds, dogs, roosters -- disturbing.

An organic gardener ("I didn't call it organic when I was in school and spreading chicken manure in my uncle's garden"), Cock is a strident advocate for preserving the environment.

"I like growing things organically. I wonder if the people who move in will be wanting to spray chemicals on their yards and get chemicals into my food, or water their grass, a terrible misuse of resources."

Although he owns the land on which he lives, Cock said preservation of it dictates that he look upon it in a different way. "Look at it like you're renting it for the 60 years. Somebody has to use it when you finish with it."

His garden, he said, is an example. "It gets better every year because of the compost I put on it."

The rich, black dirt of Plant City, on the other hand, has been abused by building rather than planting on it. "Plant City's black dirt never should have been anything but farmland," Cock declared.

These topics, things that have shaped his life, awaken passions that his generous injection of sneaky humor can't hide. "If you really want to talk, come up here and we'll sit on the porch and when the dogs stop barking, we'll talk.

"I can point to where someone's house is going to be."

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