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Neighbors savor 'little bit of heaven'

They oppose a bid to rezone nearby land. The county is leaning their way, despite the prospect of acquiring eagle habitat.

By THERESA BLACKWELL, Times Staff Writer
Published September 25, 2005

EAST LAKE - What would be good for the eagles and their neighbors would be bad for the chickens and their owners.

And that, according to county officials, is why county commissioners should deny a proposed rezoning and development agreement requested by developer Roy E. Shaffer Jr.

The eagles live in a 9-acre sanctuary that Shaffer created within the Grey Oaks subdivision.

The chickens live among the homes on East Lake Drive that are next to a piece of land that Shaffer wants to develop.

Shaffer has requested donating the sanctuary to the county. In exchange, he wants to transfer the development rights from the sanctuary to his new subdivision, called Black Hawk Preserve.

With the transfer, Shaffer could build 46 homes. Without it, he could build 12.

The county would love to have that 9 acres with the eagle nest to fill in a piece of the planned Brooker/Anclote Corridor, a band of preserved open space, said Paul Cassel, the county's director of development review services. But that, he said, is not enough to offset the effect on East Lake Drive residents.

"It just doesn't outweigh the extra density being put in that neighborhood," he said. "His density is almost four times as great as what you find in that neighborhood."

That's why county officials have recommended that county commissioners deny Shaffer's request.

Shaffer, 63, is trying to settle one last project before throat cancer claims his life. He has applied for a change in zoning for 24.5 acres he owns at the end of East Lake Drive off Keystone Road from agricultural estate residential to planned residential development. But he also wants to find a way to protect the eagle sanctuary forever, because watching a pair of protected bald eagles raise families there has meant so much to him.

Audubon Society Eaglewatchers and Grey Oaks residents support the plan. But most residents of East Lake Drive, who live on lots of 2 acres or more, oppose it. They see it as a threat to their quiet and private way of life.

The recommendation to deny the zoning change was good news for the 18 property owners who gathered at the home of David and Jennifer Lewis Wednesday, across the street from the Shaffer property on East Lake Drive. They were there to discuss why they oppose the plan and their strategy for defeating it.

We're just normal, everyday people here, said Peter Ireland, Jennifer Lewis' stepfather, who lives next door. "We've just found a little bit of heaven here."

Some value the freedom to have a gaggle of geese, three Arabian horses, a goat, a flock of chickens or even a spoiled-rotten pet rooster named Robert - if they choose. Others just like the privacy and slower traffic that goes with having fewer neighbors.

"We all chose to live back here for our own peace and sanity," said Ray Szelest of Ridge Top Drive. "We're Pinellas County's best-kept secret and we want to keep it that way."

"And we pay a lot of taxes to live that way," said Wayne Riolo of East Lake Trail.

The residents have no problem with a development of 12 houses at the Shaffer site, as currently allowed under zoning.

Some, like David Lewis, said they would sell their property and move out if the increased-density plan was adopted. Jennifer Lewis said the traffic from the subdivision would be too much of a hazard with two small children.

Neighbors of the proposed development will be at the County Commission's public hearing on Oct. 18 to restate their opposition.

Shaffer had some good news to temper the bad last week. He said the tumor in his throat is finally responding to chemotherapy and radiation treatment, shrinking somewhat, but it will grow again when he has to stop treatment. So he said he may have until Christmas or January to get things in order.

He is not surprised by the opposition of neighbors to the proposed Black Hawk Preserve, though he maintains they would benefit from his proposal and the 4 park-like acres at the entrance would maintain their privacy.

"Nobody likes change. . . . I fully understand that," he said. "I just wish the people would give me a chance to explain it to them (in person). They might have missed out on something good, but nobody will listen. After they hear me out, well, no problem."

[Last modified September 25, 2005, 02:15:40]

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