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Cause unites diverse cast of activists

An unemployed "pit bull" and a family man with a business take on developers as part of Citizens for Sanity.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


LAND O'LAKES -- If the human mix that makes up Citizens for Sanity were chemicals, you might expect hissing and fizzing and bubbles pouring over the side of the beaker.

Clay Colson is an unemployed, ponytailed man who lives with his sister in an antique shotgun house in the boondocks.

Harry Wright is a prison guard turned barbecue restaurateur who lives in a pastel block-and-stucco subdivision in the heart of Land O'Lakes.

"We're like 50-million miles apart," Wright said from the noisy kitchen of Hungry Harry's Famous Bar-B-Que. "Clay has a very simple lifestyle. I have six kids and my life is all over the place."

What they share is a contempt for what they see as the despoliation of central Pasco County.

Their target: Developers and their supposed yes-men in Pasco County government. Their method: lobbying, lawsuits and, come November, electoral politics.

Citizens for Sanity, which after seven months claims more than 1,250 members, has brought unity of purpose to once-lone voices whose gripes had echoed harmlessly among the cypress.

"All my life I've been politically active, distrustful of government authority," said Colson. "I've finally run into a group of people who are sick and tired, and we're not going to take it anymore."

Colson and company are suing Pasco to overturn rezoning for Oakstead, a 1,200-home subdivision proposed for 841 acres west of U.S. 41. They insist the county ignored Florida panthers and other endangered animals on the land.

Earlier this week, however, Colson did agree to sit down with Oakstead's developer to try and settle their differences out of court, possibly by the inclusion of a wildlife habitat as part of the project.

Until Pasco passes a law to protect wildlife, Citizens for Sanity is demanding that a judge freeze all development in the county.

The group has also formally challenged the county's comprehensive land-use plan, the blueprint for development in Pasco.

Those are fighting words for developers, who have enlisted by the dozen in defense of the county. In central Pasco alone, more than 40,000 new homes are on the books. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake.

Said developer Jay B. "Trey" Starkey, who is building a 900-home subdivision west of Odessa: "I call them Citizens for Insanity."

From acorn to oak

Citizens for Sanity was born last summer among the cypress and live oaks off Lake Patience Road.

People have lived for decades there on large rural lots, separated from neighbors by alligator-stalked ponds, sand-trap roads and clawing brush.

That relatively isolated way of life appeared doomed with the posting of a yellow rezoning sign beside the cattle ranch. The project was called Oakstead, and it promised to bring more than 1,000 homes and 2,000 cars to the neighbors' little neck of the woods.

Neighbor Ed Moore, who a week earlier had alerted local newspapers with a fax screaming, "THE DEVIL IS COMING," delivered anti-Oakstead fliers to neighbors while perched atop his riding mower. One landed in the hands of Clay Colson.

Colson had been lying low in Pasco. Forty-four years old, unemployed and unmarried, he lived with his sister and her two children in an 80-year-old house near the county dog pound.

Colson was no greenhorn when it came to bucking the system. He said he had been fired from two different jobs for trying to unionize his colleagues. The second employer paid Colson, who had planned to sue, an undisclosed settlement, Colson said, and he was living off that cash.

To ease neighbors' concerns, County Commissioner Pat Mulieri arranged a meeting with Oakstead's developers. Few were expected; more than 200 showed up.

The meeting became an angry free-for-all in which residents condemned the pace of suburbanization in central Pasco. "I realized, "My God, this county is screwing people over everywhere,' " said Colson, who was in the audience.

The threat posed by suburbanization was also dawning on Harry Wright.

Wright, 50, was as well known for his local philanthropy as for his barbecue. As a prison guard in the 1980s, he befriended a convicted murderer named Sylvester Peoples.

After years of lobbying the state, Wright helped secure Peoples' release. To this day, Peoples not only works for Wright, he also lives with his boss and Wright's family in their Land O'Lakes home.

Previously Wright opposed a waste incinerator in Shady Hills and the extension of Collier Parkway to Hale Road..

Eventually, Wright, Colson and others met over pork ribs and iced tea to plot strategy. Wright half-jokingly suggested they incorporate under the name Citizens for Sanity. The name stuck.

Taking on the big boys

Colson calls Laura Swain the "Mother of Citizens for Sanity." Swain rejects the honorary title. But there's no denying she helped widen the group's horizons.

The activists turned to Swain, a director of the Tampa Bay branch of the Sierra Club, after county commissioners approved rezoning for Oakstead in September.

Swain turned the group on to Pasco's comprehensive land-use plan: hundreds of pages filled with nearly impenetrable government jargon.

"They were a very passionate group that didn't know very much," Swain said. "I can fight rezoning till I'm blue in the face, but unless you attack the comprehensive plan, the developer is doing exactly what the county is telling him to do."

Colson quickly set himself apart with his fervor. One wing of his house took on the look of the messy office of a harried businessman. The yellow Citizens for Sanity T-shirts became his uniform.

Two legal challenges followed: One to overturn Oakstead based on the assumed presence of endangered wildlife; the other attacking the comp plan itself for failing to limit urban sprawl.

Colson and Wright insist they were left with no choice but to sue after their pleadings before county government failed to persuade. As for developers, Colson argues they are reeling under the first real challenge to their supremacy in decades.

"Developers are not being robbed of anything," he said. "Development rights are not property rights. Just because you own property does not mean you can use it any way you want."

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