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Cattle ranch in Pasco opens to housing boom

JAMES THORNER
Published June 9, 2004

WESLEY CHAPEL - With plans to build 16,000 homes, a Pasco County cattle ranch is poised to become the largest residential project in the Tampa Bay region.

After years of resisting the lure of development, the 5,000-acre Wiregrass Ranch southeast of Interstate 75 and State Road 54 is preparing to enter the housing market with unprecedented volume.

In addition to homes, landowners want permission to build stores and businesses totaling 4.4-million-square feet and offices and research parks totaling 3.9-million square feet.

That's residents enough for a medium-sized city, enough stores to open four malls and enough offices to fill a third of New York's Empire State Building. Despite the seeming overwhelming figures, Wiregrass could deliver most of what it promises over the next 20 years, Tampa Bay area housing analyst Marvin Rose said.

The project's size qualifies it as a development of regional impact, requiring what could be two years of government scrutiny.

But the housing clearly is in demand. Fueled by low interest rates, Pasco built a record 6,000 homes last year. I-75, which the state will widen to six or eight lanes, hums with activity a mile west of Wiregrass. Sales in neighborhoods surrounding the ranch are sizzling.

"It's the perfect piece of property," Rose said.

The project's origins date to the 1940s when, for a few bucks an acre, James and Bob Porter scooped up thousands of acres of scrub land and swamp from a Rockefeller-owned agricultural company.

Pieces of the original holdings became Saddlebrook golf and tennis resort and the 4,000-home Meadow Pointe community.

But the core of the ranch, 5,000 acres, was handed down to the next generation of Porters.

Though synonymous with cattle for decades, the family ultimately felt the pressure of suburban New Tampa. The Porters struck several deals that will make them land poor but cash rich.

Pulte Homes would develop the residential part of the project and the Goodman Co. would develop the commercial portion of the ranch.

The tens of millions of dollars the Porters will reap likely would please James Porter, the tough-as-nails patriarch who died last year at 86. As his son, Don, pointed out in an obituary in the Times last year, "My father for 40 years bemoaned the fact they had overpaid for the property. I think the original price was $3 an acre."

Pulte, one of the country's biggest builder/developers, plans to split the ranch among itself and two of its corporate subsidiaries: Dell Webb and DiVosta Homes. Dell Webb, best known for its Sun City developments, builds housing and golf courses for active adults over 55 years old.

Though Pulte did not return a call from the Times, government planners reviewing the project said the company promises a community arranged around a pedestrian-friendly town center.

Among the first businesses proposed for Wiregrass is a multi-story hospital to serve a community that has relied on University Community and other Tampa hospitals.

With 16,000 homes, Wiregrass would dwarf in population its nearest competitors in the region. Only two projects in Pasco, two in Hillsborough County and one in Pinellas County approach its ambition.

The next biggest project, Tampa Palms, a couple of miles from Wiregrass in New Tampa, was approved for 11,600 homes on 5,400 acres more than 10 years ago. But it never reached those housing heights.

Proposed for U.S. 41 in Pasco, Connerton was approved for 15,100 homes in 2000 but scaled back to 8,700 homes after selling 2,300 acres to the state as conservation land.

The density of the proposed development is justified considering the ranch sits in a "highly urbanized area that's essentially an extension of New Tampa," Wiregrass attorney Joel Tew said.

The Porters could have asked to build 20,000 homes and would have been within their legal rights to do so.

"We're absolutely entitled to it," Tew said.

Be careful what you wish for, said John Meyer, head planner with the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, starting a government review of Wiregrass that could last two years.

Landowners will have to finance highways to serve such a mammoth project. Costs could run in the tens of millions. Replacing wetlands destroyed by construction could raise the price further.

"Wiregrass is the biggest ever in the Tampa Bay area," Meyer said. "But that's not necessarily a bragging point."

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