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With no Jovita, future of St. Leo not so rosy

Published March 20, 2006

ST. LEO - A weak 8-iron off the 11th tee at Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club can sail clear out of town. It's only 100 yards.

It's an oddity that gives duffers something to shoot for and, more significantly, a symbol of the fragile existence of Pasco's second smallest town.

No signs on the golf course mark the border between the town of St. Leo and unincorporated Pasco County. No dotted line through the neighborhood declares one house in town and its neighbor outside it.

But these are weighty distinctions to some Lake Jovita residents, namely the ones whose high-priced homes are in the city limits of St. Leo and subject to costs of extra government.

They are pushing town leaders to let them out so they can also become part of unincorporated Pasco County.

Their taxes would instantly decrease, along with revenues for the town's modest budget.

St. Leo Mayor James Hallett and other officials are researching ways to deny the residents' contraction petition. But it's likely to come down to a public vote, or two.

That's because three Lake Jovita residents are running for Town Commission in the April 11 election. If they win, they would have a majority on the five-member body and could vote to approve the petition, triggering a referendum.

"Both portions of the town have looked at the numbers and see it's going to be a close call," Hallett said.

* * *

St. Leo, population 916, has no grocery store, no fast-food joint, no shopping to speak of. It's rare to see a home for sale, except in Lake Jovita. The most prominent landmarks are a college, a monastery and an abbey.

The town, with neighboring San Antonio, was founded more than a century ago by a judge from Arizona named Edward Dunne who sought a place where Catholics could freely practice their faith.

Until recently, some longtime residents thought their secret hideaway might be preserved forever. But progress arrived about eight years ago in the form of the upscale Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club.

The development, on the eastern edge of the lake, centers on a gorgeous golf course that opened in 1999. The winding cul-de-sacs of luxury homes filled in around the course without regard for town boundaries. About 100 of Lake Jovita's 900 properties are in the town.

As development plans moved forward in the late 1990s, Town Commissioner Richard Christmas opposed allowing houses built on smaller lots.

Trending toward suburbia, he warned, would change the town forever.

* * *

John Fantone saw inequities when he moved to Lake Jovita, in St. Leo, five years ago with his wife, Linda. Some residents, like Fantone, pay town and county property taxes. Others pay only county taxes. The difference in the services they receive, Fantone says, is negligible.

He took a seat, unopposed, on the Town Commission in 2003, with a mission to fix that problem by bringing Lake Jovita under one governmental roof. He led discussions about annexing the entire development into the town.

They went nowhere.

"Their (residents') response was "That sounds nice, but it doesn't make economic sense for us to do that,"' Fantone said recently. "They would see that the return on that tax wouldn't be economically to their advantage."

He was the first and only Lake Jovita resident to serve on the Town Commission.

Now a private citizen, he is leading the charge to again try to get his neighborhood under one roof.

This time, though, the roof would be Pasco County.

[Last modified March 20, 2006, 00:36:17]

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