Activist is 'reasonable' voice
By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
WESLEY CHAPEL -- What is it about a pony-tailed, deliberately plain, T-shirt-wearing, middle-aged environmentalist that makes wealthy developers gratefully open their checkbooks?
From her swamp-hemmed home in Quail Hollow, Pasco activist Jennifer Seney hasn't just signed a truce with the forces of development.
She also has made a case for slowing the bulldozers -- and has done so with accolades from developers who have a billion-dollar stake in the thousands of new homes rising from pasture, scrub and swamp.
"My greatest success has been being a successful pain in the a--," the 51-year-old said as the morning sun, piercing the oaks and cypress outside her living room, glints off her gray streaked hair.
An anthropologist's understanding of human relations, an artist's touch for thinking creatively and the arm-twisting skills of a martial arts master: Seney has thrived in arenas where less informed and less tactful activists have foundered.
One of her successes is pascowildlife.com, which lobbies Pasco to protect farm and forest from all-consuming development. After getting 37,000 hits on the Internet, the Web site still is going strong after two years.
Seney formed a political action committee called Preserve Pasco! It pushes the public to buy environmental land before the suburbs devour it and spit out the acorns. Seed money could come from a modest property tax and a 1-cent-on-the-dollar jump in the sales tax.
Not content with that, Seney has organized a one-woman lecture tour. A $2,200 grant from the state paid for a wildlife slide show she has taken to 39 chambers of commerce, rotary clubs, homeowners associations and industry groups.
Her projector in tow, she crept into the lion's den, the executive committee of the Pasco Building Association, and emerged with some of the kings of the concrete jungle licking her face.
West Pasco's Alex Deeb, whose family has developed thousands of lots in Pasco, scribbled her a check for $1,000.
"I'm not an environmentalist. But I'm not somebody who just rapes and pillages land," Deeb said. "Her presentation made sense. It wasn't radical."
She cajoled Ben Harrill, the smooth-talking former county attorney who makes a healthy living representing developers, to join an environmental lands acquisition task force.
"She's very candid about her views and positions. And very persuasive. In fact you may say persistently so," Harrill said.
Seney even accepted an invitation to join the board of the Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, a thigh-length T-shirt in a sea of skirts, slacks and suits. She led the chamber to push for smaller shopping center signs, no small risk for a body whose purpose is business promotion.
"I'm their token. I'm their conscience," Seney said of the chamber. "I p--- them off. But that's what I'm there for."
A Connecticut Yankee
Jennifer Leigh Seney was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1951. She's descended from a long line of Connecticut Yankees.
Her great grandparents' pastel portraits -- great grandpa James Alexander Wilson displays the bushy white hair and mustache of Mark Twain -- hang on her home office wall.
Wilson's wife, Phebe, showed an early inkling of activism: She spent her later years fighting the federal government to collect her husband's Civil War pension.
Seney still clings to her northeastern Republican roots, but she calls herself a "forward thinking moderate Republican."
In the late 1960s she moved out west and got a degree in anthropology from the University of Colorado, a state where she met her second and current husband, a Louisiana Cajun named Jesse Davis.
She admits she spent years studying karate and tae kwan do "because breaking things made me happy."
In 1995, the couple bought 4 1/2 acres in Quail Hollow, a community on the edge of the 8,000-acre Cypress Creek Preserve.
They intended to plunk down money on a boat and sail the ocean blue. But fresh water blocked their plans. Noticing that ground around her home was settling, Seney blamed the millions of gallons of water pumped daily from the Cypress Creek area.
Her mentor was outspoken water activist Gilliam Clarke, who converted Seney into a water warrior determined to prevent cities to the south from siphoning too much drinking water from Pasco.
"I was a Johnny-come-lately, part of the second-level troops," Seney said.
Seney's promotion to the front ranks came in 1998. She opposed the construction of a 7-Eleven gas station on State Road 54 and Old Pasco Road in Quail Hollow.
Harrill, the attorney representing the landowners, buried Seney and the other critics with legal arguments. Seney remembers feeling "tarred and feathered." She would be better prepared in the future.
Seney's reputation as an activist led Clay Colson, who started a slow-growth group called Citizens for Sanity, to enlist Seney in a 1999 challenge to the county's comprehensive land-use plan.
The comp plan is key to deciding what type of development goes where. Colson, Seney and their allies insist the plan failed to protect wildlife, wetlands and the water supply.
Pasco eventually caved. It agreed to form a 25-member citizens advisory committee to reshape the comp plan and pass wildlife protection regulations.
"We shocked the pooky out of Pasco. They were used to being sued by developers but not by their own citizens," Seney said.
Seney's house, a brown-wood-paneled affair swaddled in palmetto swamp, is a fitting headquarters. Her "war room," is equipped with his-her computers. The bookshelf groans with bound copies of statutes and development plans.
Another bedroom Seney stocks with dozens of stuffed, plastic and ceramic pandas. She insists the bears be anatomically correct. The walls hold her pencil portraits of people and animals.
The sun room, which doubles as an artist's studio, looks out on a backyard solar panel central to Seney's and Davis' plans to be self reliant in electricity.
After being laid off from a printing job, Seney has worked compulsively at her activism. Her husband's computer programming job in Tampa pays the bills.
"There are times when it consumes her way into the wee hours of the night," Davis said. "It's difficult for me to watch her go after whatever topic and she's the only one out there leading the charge."
But it's her research and attention to detail that have persuaded county officials, developers and fellow activists that she's a serious commodity.
"I'm happy she has moderated what I perceived early on to be a confrontational style," said County Commissioner Pete Altman, a Democrat with whom Seney has had a rocky relationship.
Fellow activist Colson, one of county's kings of confrontation, said he admires Seney but suggests her penchant for alliances with county officials and developers could fail.
"She's willing to work within the system no matter how broken the system is,' Colson said.
There's no escaping the conclusion that some developers are willing to catch a moderate dose of Seney to inoculate themselves from a serious case of Sierra-Club-itis later.
Listen to Deeb: "If we have somebody reasonable to negotiate with we can negotiate things out and it can be beneficial to both sides."
Developers like the fact that Seney's environmental land purchase program would be voluntary. "I'm not against the bears and the bunnies, but what I oppose is taking property from landowners without just compensation," said real estate attorney Steve Booth.
At a meeting last month of the comprehensive plan advisory committee, Seney's style was on display: She dominated the discussion, slamming the proceeding as "fluff," but in a tone so measured that few seemed offended.
At one point she draped a chummy arm around the shoulders of gruff rancher Don Porter, whose Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel is development's next big field of play. And Porter didn't call the cops.
Then there's sight of Booth and Seney teasing each other and scraping horns. Booth has a reputation for being the attorney developers turn to when a project is bound to provoke a public outcry.
"I beat him up. I made him feel this big," Seney said of Booth, laughingly holding her thumb and forefinger together as if she's pinching a marshmallow.
Booth, whom clients pay for his tenacity and backbone, dismisses such a suggestion with a laugh.
"There's no way she wore me down," Booth insisted. "No way."
Seney's got the goods, however. Deposited in the account of her nonprofit organization is $250. From Steve Booth.
-- James Thorner covers growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4613. His e-mail address is email@example.com
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111