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A warrior for nature learns to pick her battles

Published April 16, 2004

It's as inevitable as the summer rains.

One day you take a turn off the interstate and you're in the middle of nowhere, and nowhere is rimmed by ranchers' fences, dotted by oak hammocks and populated by the occasional cow.

A year later, nowhere is a thicket of junk - gas stations, convenience stores, motels and food restaurants. The traffic creeps along a suddenly too small two-lane road. Signs promising new subdivisions, with houses so close together their roofs will nearly touch, pop up wherever you look.

In central Pasco County, signs also promise what the area has never had: a big mall to call its own, Cypress Creek Town Center.

Scores of stores are expected. No longer will Pasco shoppers have to drive to Tampa to shop-til-they drop.

More than 6,000 jobs will be created.

Nearly $24-million in property taxes will be generated.

And all of it on 510 largely unspoiled acres, a pie-shaped piece of land in a location that is a developer's dream.

It's near Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, a road that leads straight into the land of the platinum credit card, New Tampa. That the property also borders Cypress Creek, one of the water sources for Hillsborough County, is, well, just a detail.

The project is moving without much problem through the regulatory bureaucracy. It was approved Monday by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and will be reviewed by the Pasco County Commission in July. Then state regulators will examine it.

The shopping center will almost certainly survive this vetting. They don't call Pasco "Pass-Go" for nothing. The nickname is an elbow-in-the-ribs tribute to the county's habit of rolling over like a puppy and playing dead for developers. Environmentalists here know just how uphill their fights are.

Jennifer Seney is one of those environmentalists. Like so many others, Seney awakened to the cause as she came of age in the '60s. She believes so strongly in the cause that she refused to have children; the world was crowded enough.

Now she crisscrosses Pasco in her 10-year-old purple Ford Ranger truck, sits through long-winded meetings about Cypress Creek, and carefully picks her fights with the mall developer, Robert "Hi" Sierra, over things like the creek and where the extra traffic would go.

"I'm a pragmatist," Seney said when we met for breakfast at one of those new landmarks, a Denny's at the State Road 54 exit of Interstate 75. "The mall isn't going to be stopped."

There was a time when she would have believed, behaved, differently. There was a time when she would have put herself in the way of the earth movers at the mall site. Not now.

"Maybe it's because I'm 53, and I've lived a long time. When I was 20, I would lay down my life for a rabbit."

Call her sadder, wiser. But also smarter. She fights here, there. Sometimes she wins.

Take the wetlands on the mall site. Sierra first wanted to destroy more than 100 acres of wetlands to make way for the mall. That figure has been reduced to 62 acres.

When I talked to him, Sierra vowed to do what's expected of him to satisfy his critics. Seney acknowledges that it's actually been possible to work with him - something that can't be said of all developers and all deals.

But make no mistake. This relationship isn't love.

Seney and I got in her pickup and took a ride down a rutted road behind the land where the mall would go. A few houses stood deep in the trees. Their back yards lead down to glassy smooth Cypress Creek. On the opposite shore, we spotted a wild turkey.

The creek is not broad at this spot. Perhaps four years from now, the people who live in this quiet wood will look out not just at the creek but at the back of the mall on the opposite shore, Seney said.

The people who use the mall will never see this. Many won't even know what this place looked like before the mall opened.

Like sprawl, this is inevitable.

But the mall could be bigger. It could be more environmentally destructive. If Jennifer Seney succeeds, that, at least, will not be inevitable.

[Last modified April 16, 2004, 01:05:40]

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