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A small piece of Old Florida fights to keep its soul intact

Published April 2, 2006

I was tooling around the streets of Ozona in a golf cart with three women the other day, trying not to fall out. The driver was Peg Mahara, president of the Ozona Village Improvement Society.

"Original," Mahara said, pointing to houses left and right as we zipped past. "Original. Original."

Some of the houses she pointed to were 100 years old, shotgun-style frame houses that date back to the fishing-village heyday of this little coastal enclave.

Then we turned down Orange Street, and you could see the future. Three old little houses in a row were being sold together to be torn down. Elsewhere, larger lots had been split up for modern construction.

We passed two enormous, long, hangar-shaped buildings still under construction. The sign proudly told passers-by that each unit will have a six-car garage. Units will start in the mid $500,000s.

"The barbarians are at the gate," Merideth Grannan, an Ozona resident and elementary school teacher, commented from the back of the golf cart.

There is no place else in Pinellas County exactly like Ozona, although some folks are trying to make it more like every place else. Already, some old homes have been replaced with McMansions.

Even more worrisome to the members of the Ozona Village Improvement Society are condominium projects. There's a big one proposed at the southwest corner of Tampa Road and Alt. U.S. 19, one of the three entrances to their community. The Pinellas County Commission is considering it. A smaller one on the north side of Tampa Road already has been approved.

"The whole thing," Mahara said, "is to keep the character of Ozona. The fishing-village concept is something we cherish."

Ozona sits on the coast of Pinellas County between Dunedin to the south and Palm Harbor to the north. Folks started living there in the 1870s, and it got its first post office in 1888 under the name Yellow Bluff. The name was changed a few years later for the connotations of fresh air.

The Ozona Village Hall, built in 1906, is a white frame building on Bay Street that has been extensively remodeled under the auspices of the village improvement society. Over the decades it has seen dances and weddings, worship and potlucks.

The two-room little red schoolhouse built in 1916 was preserved and redone. Today it contains school district offices, not too far away from the somewhat more modern Ozona Elementary School.

As for the golf carts, they too are part of Ozona. The residents got special permission from the County Commission to use properly equipped golf carts to get around, though critics still warn somebody is going to get hurt any day now. The fourth party in our golf cart was Terry Fortner, an Ozonan descended from the earliest residents. She provided me with reports, surveys, lists of historical buildings and a mission statement.

"We're not trying to have an adversarial relationship with the county," Fortner said. "They need us citizens to give them something to stand on when they stand up to the developers."

I thanked the three women for the tour, got in my truck and headed back out Tampa Road, thinking about Ozona and the way that we do things in Florida.

We tax everybody according to the "highest and best use" of the land, driving out the old and pushing us all toward the new. Where you and I might see a charming old beach shack, the tax man sees a potential mansion or condo.

We sum up a place like Ozona with zoning labels: R-4, general commercial. If the next guy can satisfy those rules, he can build whatever he wants. If the rules don't allow it, he can often get the government to slap a new, denser label on the map.

What allowance do we make for a place's soul?

[Last modified April 2, 2006, 01:23:12]

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