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A straw that leads southward

The city of St. Petersburg owns hundreds of acres of land in Pasco and Hillsborough counties from which it extracts water.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published July 3, 2006


[Times photo: Mike Pease]
Tyler Osborne, 17, tries his hand at fishing at the boat ramp of Starvation Lake, one of several lakes located at Lake Park in Lutz. The city of St. Petersburg owns 1,123 acres of land in Hillsborough County and 567 acres of land in Pasco County.

LUTZ - Almost a square mile around, Lake Park is an oasis between the clatter of the Veterans Expressway and Interstate-275 in northwest Hillsborough County.

There's an archery range and equestrian facilities, a BMX bicycle track and picnic benches, lakes, swamps and hardwood hammocks.

It's empty space cherished by more than 500,000 people a year.

And it's owned, believe it or not, by the city of St. Petersburg.

In fact, the city of St. Petersburg owns 1,123 acres in northwest Hillsborough and another 567 acres in southern Pasco County, property records show.

When combined, that's a property larger than 13 of Pinellas County's 24 municipalities, including Belleair and St. Pete Beach.

The land, which is used as water well fields but doubles as parkland, is off the books and not taxed. But the 1,690 acres together are worth more than $31-million, according to property appraisers in Hillsborough and Pasco.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker praises the city's foresight for acquiring the land beginning in the 1920s.

John Crilly, formerly of Lutz, remembers his father cursing St. Petersburg's name until the day he died.

* * *

The city of St. Petersburg entered into an agreement with a private contractor to develop the city's first water well field in Hillsborough in 1929 at the site of Lake Rogers Park, off Racetrack Road in the northwest part of the county

The city purchased the land outright 11 years later and has held that property ever since, said Bruce Grimes, the city's real estate and property manager.

And then in 1962, the city built a second well field at the current site of Lake Park. At about the same time, it also acquired the Pasco County land, said Patti Anderson, director of the city's Water Resources Department.

The well fields continue to pump water today as part of the Tampa Bay Water system.

"It shows tremendous forward thinking," Mayor Baker said of the decision to build the city's water assets.

The people of Hillsborough County have been less impressed.

Residents there say pumping water out of the ground drained lakes and private wells. It was an affront, tantamount to stealing.

"I can remember my poor daddy cussing St. Petersburg up and down," said Crilly, 86, who was raised in Lutz but now lives outside Charlotte, N.C. "They came to town, and our lake dried up."

Residents near the fields also worry St. Petersburg is itching to dump parts of the land to private developers in order to net a big windfall.

Why would St. Petersburg care what ultimately happens to the land, people like Crilly wonder. Its downtown is a 45-minute drive away.

* * *

Grimes admits St. Petersburg may one day want to sell all or part of its Hillsborough properties.

The city made $16.5-million from the sale of Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County in 2001, a transaction that has paid for the addition of close to a dozen skate and dog parks throughout St. Petersburg.

And the Hillsborough land likely would fetch a good price.

Hillsborough County itself has made offers for part of the city's lands but was refused by the St. Petersburg City Council.

However, the county has the right of first refusal should the city ever decide to sell.

That makes the prospect of town homes taking over the parkland doubtful.

"We're just waiting on them," said Kurt Gremley, manager of Hillsborough's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. "They are very well aware that we are interested in those properties. It's not like it's a secret."

St. Petersburg does not know when it might decide to sell any of its land in Hillsborough, Grimes said. In the meantime, the city allows Hillsborough County to use much of the land as park space.

"It's kind of a good mitigating factor for people wondering why we own it," Grimes said.

* * *

St. Petersburg is not the only savvy investor in the Hillsborough real estate market. The city of Clearwater owns 444 acres in Odessa in northwest Hillsborough.

The land, which was purchased for $1.597-million in 1982, was used dump sludge from the city's wastewater treatment plant, said Clearwater city engineer Mike Quillen.

But that stopped within years. Now the land, valued at $6,096,758 by the property appraiser, is used by a local farmer to raise cattle.

"We're just sitting on it," Quillen said. "Over the years, we've had nibbles of people wanting to buy it, but the price did not seem right for that much land. That area's going to take off sooner or later."

Odessa farmer Bob Smith now has about 150 cattle on the land, which is opposite Brooker Creek in Pinellas County. Smith said he use to grow oats and other grains there.

It could be 15 to 20 years before the lands becomes marketable to a developer, but waiting will pay off, Smith said.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard once called the land, "an annuity" for the city.

* * *

Pinellas County also owns 68 acres worth $1.7-million in Hillsborough County.

All totaled, that's almost 3.5 square miles of land in Hillsborough owned by the governments of Pinellas.

Hillsborough County, of course, controls many thousands of acres in 3,000 different properties in Hillsborough.

It owns none in Pinellas.

Staff writer Bill Coats contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at 727 892-2273 or asharockman@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 3, 2006, 05:55:56]


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