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The road to nowhere won’t stay that way


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001

Far in advance of its grand opening this weekend, the Suncoast Parkway warmed the beating hearts of Tampa Bay area developers.

With the four lanes of asphalt shooting into Pasco, the bulldozer brigades could bring their idea of civilization to a rural no-man's land served by scraggly dirt roads.

The transformation has already begun. Developers have proposed more than 8,000 new homes, a mega-mall bigger than Citrus Park Town Center and office parks on State Road 54 between Little Road and U.S. 41.

Similar treatment is due the parkway's interchange with State Road 52. Just three weeks ago, developers proposed an office park, a supermarket and 550 new homes for 295 acres west of the parkway.

And the east side of the parkway between the two state roads could eventually contain thousands of homes.

Nevertheless, gopher tortoises near the parkway are by no means facing extinction.

The reason: Almost the entire western boundary of the parkway, to a depth of several miles, is government-owned conservation land. The only caterpillars crawling there will be several inches long, not yellow, diesel-powered behemoths.

One of those tracts, the 6,800-acre Serenova Preserve, was created to make up for wetlands destroyed during parkway construction.

Bordering Serenova to the south is the J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park another 8,000 acres. Other state-acquired land contiguous to the preserve brings conservation totals up to nearly 20,000 acres, about one-twentieth the land area of the county.

Pasco County administrator John Gallagher, one of the driving forces behind the parkway since the 1980s, insists the parkway's boon to Pasco development has been overhyped.

Besides SR 54, where subdivisions such as Long Lake Ranch, Oakstead, LeDantec, Longleaf and Suncoast Crossings are in the works, there's little readily developable land near the parkway, Gallagher said.

"I honestly think you're going to have more of impact in Citrus County, which will be much easier to reach after the highway opens," he said.

Even the east side of the parkway is something of a question mark. The area is dominated by the Bexley family, whose 15,000-acre ranch makes them Pasco's biggest private landowners.

The Bexleys say they plan to eventually develop the ranch. They plan to donate land so that the county can extend Ridge Road through their property to connect U.S. 41 and the parkway.

When environmentalists slam the parkway as a "road to nowhere" or a "developer's boondoggle," it's often a veiled reference to the Bexleys.

S.C. "Bud" Bexley, the family's 71-year-old patriarch, said development of his property won't happen in his lifetime.

But when the senior Bexley dies, estate taxes probably will force the family to sell someof the ranch to pay the government.

Bexley's long-term ambitions for his property are to see it become a "first-class development."

"The north-south runway at Tampa International Airport is only 14 miles from my south line," Bexley said. "Development is going to come one way or another."

The Bexleys aren't alone in their reliance on the parkway. Connerton New Town Development, an innovative plan to create a self-sufficient city of 15,177 homes east of U.S. 41, also views the toll road as a lifeline.

But the fate of Connerton also is unsettled. The Southwest Florida Water Management District is trying to buy some or all of the 8,000-acre Conner ranch as conservation land.

Price still separates the Conner family and the water agency, although the two appear to be inching closer to a deal that would make at least part of the land unassailable to developers.

Even if Connerton dies on the drawing boards, however, developers still have plenty of land close to the parkway on SR 54 to play with for at least a decade.

The road to nowhere will be a road to somewhere, even if the developers have to build that somewhere.

"Look at the history of the east coast Florida Turnpike. The newspapers and the politicians screamed it was a waste of money, that it would never work," Bexley said. "And look what's happened to it."

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