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Small town teetering between old and new

Published January 29, 2006

When I lived in Pasco County almost 25 years ago, the standard joke about Zephyrhills was that it possessed neither hills nor zephyrs. But it had a lot of mobile homes, which made for an uncannily steady source of news during tornado season.

Some of that old character (or lack of it) persists today, especially when you approach the town from the west on crowded, ever-more-commercial State Road 54. "Homes from $13,500 up!" a sign declares.

Even my visit to downtown Zephyr Park and its ducks was drowned out by a blaring, M*A*S*H-style loudspeaker system from the mobile home community next door ("BEAN SOUP AND POTATO SOUP ARE BEING SERVED IN THE REC HALL FROM 11:30 TO 12:30. BRING YOUR CUP, BOWL AND SPOON.")

And yet Zephyrhills has changed, is changing. Once you cross the main north-south drag, U.S. 301, there's a charming, tree- and brick-lined, redeveloped downtown. It reminds me of Dunedin in Pinellas County, even if they still need a little more restaurant and coffee-shop traffic.

It's been a while since a new mobile home park opened. And Zephyrhills is getting younger - the median age has dropped into the 40s because of an influx of younger working families as the greater Tampa suburban area expands. Townhomes and single-family residences are the wave of modern construction.

It has a nice feel to it, at least until you turn north on U.S. 301 toward Dade City, returning to the world of box stores and strip malls. This is the price of growth. Zephyrhills proper has a population of only 12,000, but what you might call the greater Zephyrhills area has closer to 70,000.

Like many communities in the Tampa Bay area, Zephyrhills is going through some spasms in its local politics. As with places such as St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island, there is disagreement over what the local city charter should say, and how much direct say the citizens should have.

The Zephyrhills City Council put together a committee of citizens to come up with changes for the city charter. Those citizens met for months last year, kicked around dozens of ideas, and made a bunch of recommendations.

The City Council picked the ones it liked and threw out the rest. Longer terms for us? Sure, let's put that on the ballot. Reducing our council by one seat, and replacing that seat by giving the mayor a vote? No dice.

This brings us to Gina King, a most interesting member of the City Council, Not content with the council's decisions, King is exercising the right of any citizen, and is circulating her own petitions.

"I would rather see 10 percent of the voters make these decisions," King told me, speaking of the typically low turnout in the city's April elections, "than the five of us on the council."

I did not agree with King's previous claim to fame - she opposed naming a street for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - but this, I kinda like.

In some places, city councils are trying to shut down citizen petitions. In Zephyrhills, a City Council member is the one petitioning. In the evenings she goes door to door, clipboard in hand, seeking the roughly 750 signatures she needs. (Turnout in the last election was only 650 or so.)

King wants to vote on whether to reduce the council by one seat and give the mayor, who now has a mostly ceremonial job, the fifth vote. She also wants to vote on term limits for the council, and making it easier for the council to fire the city manager (three votes instead of four). The citizens committee considered that last idea, but didn't include it.

No matter whether King succeeds, this election is going to be hard work for those Zephyrhills voters who actually show up at the polls. The City Council has proposed 15 ballot questions so far and may add a couple more; King is gathering signatures for six questions in all.

It will be interesting to see whether the voters - who rejected much-smaller lists of changes in the mid '90s - will pick and choose, or just vote them all up or down.

Zephyrhills is somewhere between old and new, trying to build an island of livability among the Wal-Marts, and fighting over whether citizens will get more direct control. Sounds pretty much like Florida.

[Last modified January 29, 2006, 01:27:17]

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