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Realtor fights to preserve the land he profits from

By MARY JO MELONE
Published August 31, 2003

The blood coming out of Chuck Morton's arm was claret-colored. It coursed through a curlicue of tubing and into a machine beside him.

Morton gives blood once a month. He seems to consider the task part of his duty as a citizen in Hernando County.

Morton, 59, has other tasks. Of late, it's been the Save Our Tails campaign at Weeki Wachee Springs. He put his money where his mouth was and gave the campaign $1,000.

I surely will forget some of his affiliations, but here's a taste: He is in the Coast Guard auxiliary, belongs to a Hernando krewe of Gasparilla-style buccaneers and serves as president of a group that keeps an eye on development along Hernando's piece of the Gulf Coast.

Funny, that last one. To environmentalists, Morton ought to be the enemy, for he's a real estate man.

He sells almost nothing but waterfront, as many as 60 houses a year. This makes him, at the very least, a two-legged contradiction.

Hernando County had nearly 118,000 residents in 1995, the year Morton and his wife left their Ohio farm and headed south. Now the population of Hernando is estimated at 141,000 residents, some of them courtesy of the transactions Morton brokered.

When I pointed out his part in Hernando's growth problems, he cheerfully admitted that was true: "I used to advertise (by saying) "Come On Down.' I don't do that anymore. Now I offer a few tanks of gas if they want to leave."

Yes, Morton has undergone the ironic transformation that overtakes some transplants.

"If I could, I'd build a fence across at Georgia," he said.

He has been so affected by the change he's seen in Hernando that he waxed almost poetic the other day, talking about the campaign to save Weeki Wachee Springs, when he made the observation that made me want to seek him out: "I don't want us to be known as the county with three Wal-Marts."

Like a great machine that moves on instinct, Wal-Marts follow the people, carpeting the orange groves and sandy knolls with concrete block and blacktop.

Morton's numbers about the proliferation of stores in Hernando are, though, somewhat off. It's worse than he said.

Hernando has not just three Wal-Mart Supercenters but also a Wal-Mart distribution center and a Sam's Club under construction.

(Just to compare, Hillsborough County, with a million people, has 13 Wal-Marts listed in the phone book, as well as three Sam's Clubs.)

Other people in Hernando felt the way Morton did about Wal-Mart. They couldn't keep out the behemoth, but they prevailed in getting the county to adopt what is called the "big box" ordinance, named in honor of the stores' usual appearance. The ordinance requires landscaping and other changes to megastores such as Wal-Mart to relieve their typical blank, ugly hulk and to make them generally nicer to look at.

The Wal-Mart is symbolic of the new Hernando and of the malls and highways that could make it indistinguishable from the rest of the overbuilt Tampa Bay region - unless people intervene and make themselves heard, as Morton does.

He spent two hours in the overstuffed chair of the blood bank, giving what he could, expressive of his commitment to the county.

He seems so visible that I found myself asking whether he had a taste to run for office. Here, he defers to the native or nearly native. Nobody, he declared, should be in public office in Florida who wasn't born here or isn't at least a 20-year resident.

He is satisfied, he said, touting his favorite causes like a happy gadfly, which takes him back to Weeki Wachee Springs and how it stands for the fight for Hernando's future.

He joked that someday Wal-Mart's logo might replace the famous faces on the Hernando County seal. The seal contains two mermaids, one holding up the other by one hand. The mermaids strike the same pose in a statue at the Weeki Wachee Springs entrance. Together, the mermaids have welcomed thousands of visitors over the years, the thousands that once included Chuck Morton.

- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelone@sptimes.com or 226-3402.

[Last modified August 31, 2003, 01:47:13]


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