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Boomtown

"It's not your grandfather's Pasco County,' an analyst says of the changing landscape driven by new jobs, good schools and lower taxes.

By JAMES THORNER
Published September 28, 2003

[Times photos: Lance Rothstein]
In Land O'Lakes, houses stand shoulder to shoulder in the Oakstead development, which has exceeded expectations and will sell out its lots in about two years, well ahead of schedule. Pasco's population is expected to soar from 344,000 to nearly 500,000 by 2020.

photo
Pasco residents Mia and Roy Markey sit outside their new Ivy Lake Estates home with sons Justin, 2, and Zachary, 5. Mia Markey says the Suncoast Parkway makes it easy to get to Tampa or the airport.
A steer cools itself off in the standing water next to the Applebee's near the intersection of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and State Road 54 in Wesley Chapel.

LAND O'LAKES - When a stench lingered over Land O'Lakes four years ago, people traced the odor to tons of chicken manure the Bexley Ranch slopped on its fields as fertilizer.

Back then, ranch owner Bud Bexley swore suburbia wouldn't reach his 6,872-acre Pasco County ranch for 20 years. Now it appears those barnyard smells will disappear much sooner.

This year, Bexley proposed building 7,000 homes, stores, offices, a golf course and nature trails.

"The development is right up against my fence right now," the 73-year-old rancher said from his farmhouse in Land O'Lakes. "You can either take things like they are or try not to recognize it."

The traditional portrait of Pasco County - ranches and orange groves, mobile homes and inexpensive houses, pickups and country roads - is fading fast. In its place are new scenes of sprawling communities with golf courses and swimming pools, four-lane highways and thousands of new residents.

With little buildable land left in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, Pasco has become the region's home-building king. Driving the growth are planned communities with names such as Seven Oaks and Connerton that promise tens of thousands of homes on miles of pasture and forest. By 2020, the county's population is expected to soar from 344,000 to nearly 500,000.

Homes are no longer slap-it-in-the-ground cheap. From three-car-garage suburban spreads to Father Knows Best houses with back alleys and front porches, the construction is transforming much of Pasco into a relatively affluent borough of Pinellas and Hillsborough.

The region's newest sports stadium, an international tennis center in Wesley Chapel, and its newest mall, a 1.5-million-square-foot spread on Interstate 75, would help complete the county's makeover.

"It's not your grandfather's Pasco County anymore," housing analyst Marvin Rose said from his vantage point over the county line in Tarpon Springs.

What is progress for some is purgatory for others.

Some schools and roads already are overcrowded, and a tax increase to help pay for growth will be on the March ballot. Critics have a nickname for the county to tweak its reputed leniency toward developers: "Pass-Go."

Fueled by jobs

The area's job market has helped power Pasco's housing boom. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater market has bucked national trends and produced 12,000 jobs in the past year.

Plentiful land, good schools, relatively uncluttered commuter highways and lower property taxes are among Pasco's selling points.

Mia Markey crouches to mulch flower beds at her new house in Ivy Lake Estates southwest of the Suncoast Parkway and State Road 54. Justin, 2, darts across the freshly planted St. Augustine sod.

The Markeys moved down from New York's Hudson Valley this summer. Roy Markey works as a sheet metal contractor in Pinellas. They bought their 3,300-square-foot dream house for $376,000.

The parkway, the three-county toll road that opened in 2001, sits on the other side of a screen of pine, oak and cypress trees behind the Markey house.

"You can run right down to Tampa, and the airport is 20 minutes away," Mia Markey said over a faint hum of parkway traffic.

Ivy Lake, which ultimately will have 550 homes, didn't exist in February. It was little more than cow pasture and dirt mine. Now it's a hive of landscapers, roofers and electricians.

The stretch of State Road 54 near the Markeys is destined for 10,000 new homes, or 17,000 if you count the adjoining Bexley project. About 12 miles to the east, Wesley Chapel is exploding as an extension of New Tampa and projected to grow by about 25,000 homes through 2020.

Meadow Pointe started Wesley Chapel's suburbanization in 1991 and remains a top seller, mostly of starter homes within reach of jobs at the University of South Florida and office parks along I-75. Devco Development Co. is on course to sell 7,000 lots in Meadow Pointe through 2015.

Devco also pioneered development near the Suncoast Parkway. Oakstead on State Road 54 has exceeded expectations and will sell out its 1,200 lots in about two years, well ahead of schedule. Popping up among buyers are former Hillsborough residents seeking less crowded roads and lower taxes.

"It didn't surprise me," developer Don Buck said. "It was a pentup market, and we knew that going in."

Moving up

Fading from memory are the days when Zephyrhills lured thousands of mobile homes and Holiday and New Port Richey sprouted unadorned two-bedroom, two-bath homes that cost retirees $20,000.

Wesley Chapel's Seven Oaks, expected to grow to more than 4,000 homes between I-75 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, promises bigger houses, richer diversions and lusher landscaping.

Mature pines tower over putting-green quality grass at the Club at Seven Oaks. A giant corkscrew water slide plunges into one of the four in-ground pools.

A cafe serves flavored coffees to residents snuggled in easy chairs. A 30-seat tiered movie theater offers a diversion. The neighborhood clock tower chimes 100 different melodies.

That Pasco's average home price recently climbed to $190,000 is no mystery. With the completion of such neighborhoods as Lansbrook in North Pinellas and Tampa Palms in Hillsborough, developers need new fields to hoe. Pasco highways such as State Road 56 and Suncoast Parkway pointed the way.

The demand is here.

In the 2000 census, Wesley Chapel had the highest median household income in Pasco, $65,293. That is more than twice the median income of the retiree-heavy communities in west Pasco.

"The most important influence is that North Pinellas and northwest Hillsborough, the two most expensive submarkets in the Tampa Bay area, have sold out or are close to selling out," Rose said. "So the market just shifted up to Pasco County."

Retailers have noticed. When Target Corp. sought a location for its first ever grocery/department store in the Tampa Bay area, it chose Wesley Chapel. Cappuccinos arrive next year with the planned opening of Starbucks' coffee shops that are now common in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Springing up everywhere are interior design studios pushing none-too-cheap custom draperies and household bric-a-brac.

Part of the push toward quality comes from landowners themselves. Ranching families - the Conners, Bexleys, Porters, Mitchells and Starkeys - have been picky in their choice of builders and developers.

The Conners sold their 8,000-acre ranch for the proposed Connerton New Town Development. About 8,677 homes - a quarter of them throwbacks with alleys, porches and detached garages - would surround a compact and walkable town center. The developer is Terrabrook, which built Tampa's Westchase neighborhood.

Bexley chose Newland Communities, which is developing the FishHawk Ranch project in Brandon in Hillsborough County. Newland wants to repeat its success in Land O'Lakes by playing off the area's natural beauty.

"Bud Bexley has a favorite oak tree. We call it Bud's tree. That's absolutely spectacular from our point of view and we'll make it a focal point of our development," said Don Whyte, president of Newland's southeast division.

Classrooms needed

Schools have borne the brunt of the new-home boom that makes Pasco the 100th-fastest-growing county in the country. Administrators figure they will have to build 12 schools over 10 years to handle an annual gain of 2,000 new students.

Wesley Chapel Elementary opened last year with 776 students. Last week, enrollment was 1,073, a jump of 38 percent. Ten portable classrooms have mushroomed around the building.

"There are entire districts that don't have the growth of that one school," said Mike Rapp, the school district's planning director.

Not everyone is pleased.

Environmentalists, old-timers pining for the rural past and not-in-my-back-yard suburbanites have tried to apply the brakes.

Oak smoke blackens the chimney at Hungry Harry's Famous Bar-B-Que on U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes. Painted farm animals adorn the red, barnlike exterior. An American flag is painted on the corrugated steel roof.

Owner Harry Wright used to holler himself hoarse about development. He has threatened for a decade to decamp to Hernando County.

Now he is more reflective. In his better moods, he'll even entertain the thought that new residents might buy his barbecue.

"We're just screwed. That's really it," Wright said. "Every time a $150,000 home goes in, our standard of living goes down because the homes aren't paying their way."

The approval of Oakstead in 1999 was Wright's call to arms. He and others sued Pasco County, accusing it of rolling over to developers without protecting wildlife, wetlands and the water supply.

Since then, Pasco has approved fees to help growth pay for itself. Each new home buyer has to pay thousands for schools, parks, roads, fire stations and libraries.

A 1-cent increase in the sales tax will be on the ballot in March. The $31-million a year it would raise would pay for schools, roads and parks.

Neighborhoods like Connerton and Bexley promise to save land for cross-county wildlife corridors so that deer and foxes can skirt houses without smacking into cars.

"When we started five years ago, the county commissioners would scoff at me, say, "The citizens have no power,' and tell me to go back to Land O'Lakes," Wright said. "But it paid off. The quality of life has improved."

About 2 miles west of Wright, Bud Bexley contemplates a future short on cattle and cypress but long on concrete and shingles. He plans to stick around Land O'Lakes, even as it becomes less recognizable from his boyhood.

"It's tough to give up something you've spent your whole life doing," Bexley said. "But in Pasco County, that's the way things are."

[Last modified September 28, 2003, 02:04:08]


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