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What will Starkey legacy be?

The family has 2,500 acres left from its original ranch which is no longer viable for cattle. They say it's time to develop - their way.

Published July 24, 2005

ODESSA - During the Great Depression, J.B. Starkey realized Pinellas County was getting too crowded for the 300 cows he pastured in Largo.

So in 1937 Starkey and his ranching partners hopped on horses and drove the herd north to the grassy expanses of Pasco County.

They avoided Clearwater, camped the first night in Oldsmar and turned the cattle loose on 16,000 acres of unfenced pasture and forest cut by the Pithlachascotee and Anclote rivers.

But 68 years later, Starkey's descendents are relearning the lesson of Largo: It's hard to stop the stampede of development.

With suburban growth on their doorstep, the family is determined not to let the Starkey legacy be tarnished by slipshod projects.

The vast majority of the original ranch, about 13,000 acres, is locked up in nature preserves, mainly the J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park in New Port Richey. Longleaf and other small developments take up about 500 acres. That leaves the remaining 2,500 acres for development. The family requests to build as many as 4,600 homes on the land, keeping about half the acreage in conservation for the enjoyment of future homeowners.

"I knew growth would hit here," said J.B. Starkey Jr., who became the family patriarch when his father died at 94 in 1989. "But I didn't know it would be so fast and furious when it hit."

With the last sale of land to the state in 1995 - partly to pay the $9-million estate tax bill when the elder Starkey died - the ranch could no longer sustain enough cattle to make it viable.

The development value of the land dwarfs its agricultural value. And J.B. Starkey Jr., feeling his mortality at 69, wants to make sure the land is put to profitable use for his children and grandchildren.

"We need to liquidate a pretty static asset," said Starkey's youngest son, Frank. He's 36 and trained for six years as an architect. "The land's been a fantastic asset over the past 70 years, but it's not something we can take to the grocery store."

* * *

In the 1930s, most of southwest Pasco was an unpopulated stretch of worked-over timber land.

Lumber companies in Odessa owned much of what became the Starkey ranch, tapping the trees to make turpentine and harvesting much of the rest for their sawmills.

J.B. Starkey Sr. got the land cheap, in some cases from tax sales on land abandoned by logging companies. A buck or two an acre was typical.

It remained open range land until 1940, when Starkey and his partners painstakingly barbwired the perimeter.

Even after he drove his cattle north to Pasco, the elder Starkey clung to his 650-acre spread in Largo. But in the late 1950s he finally sold out to developers.

Starkey Road is a legacy of the land sale. But most of the rest of the legacy - cheap houses and strip centers - left a bitter taste in the mouth of the family. It's a mistake to avoid in Pasco.

"It's very undistinguished development," Frank Starkey says of the development near Ulmerton Road in Pinellas. "Having seen what happened to that land broke Dad's heart, it made him very determined to see it didn't happen to this land."

* * *

Wary of his Largo experience, Starkey Sr. sold most of his ranch to the state for the wilderness park. It happened in two large sales, one in the 1970s, the other in the 1980s.

The need to protect the land animates the family's latest entry into housing and commercial development.

The Starkey's business offices, shadowed in oak, occupy the former family ranch house northwest of State Road 54 and Gunn Highway.

J.B. Starkey's office, with a cow skull clock on the wall, was the family's TV room and screened porch. Frank works from his former bedroom. His older brother, Trey, does most of the finances in an office between his brother and father.

Cattle still rule the land, but the family sold the herd in 2003 to a rancher who leases the pasture. J.B. Starkey devotes his time to running J.B. Starkey's Flatwoods Adventures, the family ecotourism venture.

He rumbles visitors across the ranch in one of two swamp buggies, old school buses painted in camouflage with their sides removed.

"The cattle are still here so I get to see them, but I don't have to worry about the feed and fertilizer," Starkey says.

Starting in the late 1990s, on the western edge of the ranch, the Starkeys built Longleaf. It's a deliberate throwback in neighborhood design with front porches, rear alleys, village green, on-street parking and picket fences.

The next phase of development, which would finish off the ranch over the next 15 years, calls for a town center north of Gunn and SR 54 and five distinct neighborhoods of homes in the Longleaf mold.

A northern swath of the 2,500 acres, that nearest the Anclote River, will stay largely natural, according to the Starkeys' plans.

As Frank Starkey points out, the part of the ranch eventually covered with buildings and asphalt represents only one-tenth of the original 16,000 acres.

"Some would say we could develop the rest of it and still sleep well at night," Frank Starkey says.

As they leave their offices each day, the Starkey men pass a plaque, made of weathered gray boards, erected by the figure they know as "granddad."

It's a reminder not to disappoint J.B. Starkey Sr., the man whose Depression-era business sense enriches the family to this day.

The plaque was the elder Starkey's tribute to his friends. He listed their names, names such as Odis Cowart, Doc Brittle and Ham Beckett. "In appreciation of many former partners and old friends who, in the early days of the ranch, camped, rode and hunted here and whose friendship I will always cherish," the plaque reads.

His descendants hope thousands of suburbanites, most of whose experiences with cows are no closer than the steak on their tables, will cherish the ranch's legacy for decades to come.

[Last modified July 24, 2005, 00:22:18]

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