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As houses sprout, so do concerns

After remaining largely untouched for more than two decades, Royal Highlands' growth under 1970 standards could cause headaches.

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001


When their sliding-glass door is open, as it was Friday morning, Fred and Shirley Wilson can hear finches and cardinals singing in the woods behind their house in Royal Highlands.

A bit farther north, the paving on the road gives way to limerock, houses become more scarce and the lots are mostly covered with scrub oaks and pines.

Just a mile south, on the other hand, is State Road 50, which gives the Wilsons easy access to a movie theater, a library, restaurants and grocery stores.

"We're not really rural, but a little bit," said Fred Wilson, 67, a retired Pinellas County employee. "And we're still close to (Oak Hill) Hospital and all the major stores."

"We still see a lot of the animals," Shirley Wilson, 67, added. "The raccoons . . . the squirrels and the birds. We just like it here."

Royal Highlands, a massive subdivision in northwest Hernando County that covers much of the land east of U.S. 19 between SR 50 and the Citrus County line, was originally approved in 1970. For most of the time since, it was nothing more than a grid of empty limerock roads -- a ghost of a development that seemed to have died in infancy, notorious as a dumping ground for corpses and a place where serial killer John Wayne Gacy once owned a lot.

In the past several years, though, Royal Highlands has seen the arrival of hundreds of residents such as the Wilsons, who moved to their home on Calico Warbler Avenue 21/2 years ago. They and other newcomers are attracted by the unusual combination of isolation and convenience, as well as relatively cheap lots and freedom from the rigid homeowners associations that govern some developments.

Royal Highlands' rebirth, however, may be bad news for the county. As many as 12,000 homes could be built in a development designed to 30-year-old standards. That raises some concerns, most of which the county has little power to control:

The roads are limerock, though lot owners in more developed areas have paid to have them paved.

Royal Highlands' planners made no allowances for retail space and parks needed to serve such a potentially large population. The collector roads, likewise, may prove to be inadequate.

And, most worrisome, the subdivision's specifications call for thousands of new homes to be served by unmetered wells and septic tanks that could allow nitrates to leach into the groundwater.

"It's definitely a concern," Diane Rowden, a county commissioner and Royal Highlands resident, said about the development's recent growth.

"This is something the County Commission should look at."

Area's low population density was attractive to criminals

Three years after the opening of Spring Hill in the late 1960s, a development company called Royal Palm Beach Colony Inc. won approval for what it pitched as the county's second-largest development. As originally conceived, it would consist of 19,000 mostly half-acre lots on both sides of U.S. 19 -- including land later bought up by the developers of GlenLakes and The Heather.

Royal Palm built more than 100 miles of unpaved roads, but little else. It sold virtually all of the lots, often by unscrupulous means, according to a 1990 article in the St. Petersburg Times. Some out-of-town buyers were deceived into thinking their new lots were on paved roads or far closer to U.S. 19 than they actually were.

The number of people who built on the lots was so small that criminals seeking the first expanse of barren land north of the Tampa Bay area dumped several bodies there during the 1970s and '80s. Shortly after Gacy was arrested in 1978 and charged with killing more than 30 boys and young men, Hernando County sheriff's deputies searched for corpses on his lot in Royal Highlands with dogs and heavy equipment. They found nothing.

As recently as three years ago, a 48-year-old Vietnam veteran drove from Clearwater to one of the subdivision's most isolated roads and, according to deputies, burned himself to death.

There is little evidence of this spooky past in the most densely developed part of Royal Highlands, just north of SR 50 and west of Oak Hill Hospital. Some of the neighborhoods on either side of Owl, Ovenbird and Nightwalker roads -- most of the streets in Royal Highlands were named after species of birds -- look like other upscale subdivisions in the county.

Large, new homes have been built on lots covered with St. Augustine grass and flower beds; several more new ones are under construction.

Though Royal Highlands is growing more slowly than some more modern developments -- and it will probably never be fully built -- the pace has accelerated dramatically in recent years. The county has issued 488 permits for new homes in Royal Highlands since 1998. And the population in the census tract that includes Royal Highlands increased 64 percent in the past decade, making the area one of the fastest growing in the county.

"Houses are just going up right and left in that area," said Rowden, referring to the southern part of Royal Highlands. "It's incredible, the number of houses. And we're not talking little homes; we're talking ($200,000) homes."

Teresa Sturgill, a Spring Hill real estate broker, attributed the popularity partly to lot prices between $7,000 and $12,000 -- a fraction of the cost of similar lots in some gated, golf course communities. The cheaper lots are the choice especially of people who do not want the amenities some other subdivisions offer.

"That area is really developing, and it is turning out to be a very nice area," Sturgill said.

Septic tanks, new wells pose regulatory questions

The biggest problems, though, cannot be seen by driving through the neighborhood. None of the houses in Royal Highlands is hooked to water or sewer lines, even though the county has a new, large-capacity sewage treatment plan near enough to the subdivision to be named after it.

Current county subdivision regulations require houses on lots a half-acre or smaller to be hooked to sewage lines if they are connected to a central water line. Lots must be larger than one acre if they have wells, as is the case with houses in Royal Highlands.

But these rules did not go into effect until 1980, a decade after the subdivision was approved, meaning residents there are exempt from them, said Paul Wieczorek, the county's concurrency coordinator.

That severely limits the ability of the county to change any of the development practices in the subdivision. The county is free to offer sewer and water services to the area, said Utilities Director Kay Adams, but that will probably only happen when it is cost-effective for both the county and homeowners. Considering that residents must pay for feeder lines on their properties as well as a $1,600 connection fee, persuading them to take county sewer service "will be pretty hard," Adams said.

She also said that though septic tanks are potentially hazardous to the environment, nobody seems to know just how hazardous.

That is essentially true, said Kyle Champion, a geologist with the Southwest Florida Water Management District. In 1997, Champion helped conduct a study of nitrogen levels in 27 springs on Florida's West Coast, including the Chassahowitzka and Weeki Wachee rivers, which are fed by the aquifer under Royal Highlands. Nitrogen encourages the growth of algae and aquatic vegetation that can choke natural systems.

Champion expected to find high levels of organic nitrogen in the Weeki Wachee because of the 25,000 septic tanks under Spring Hill -- also installed before the county's current subdivision ordinance. Though nitrogen levels were elevated, he said, most of it was traced to the inorganic chemicals in fertilizers commonly used on lawns and golf courses.

"We're still baffled by that," he said.

This finding does not mean that septic tanks will never be a problem, Champion said. Organic nitrogen may be slower than inorganic to seep through the soil, he said. Maybe a greater concentration of the tanks will overwhelm the ability of vegetation to absorb nitrogen they release.

"Septics are something to consider as far as nitrates and groundwater are concerned because septics do produce a lot of nitrates," he said. "It's not the main problem, but you don't want to put it on the back burner."

A more pressing issue, Rowden said, is the drilling of thousands of new wells. Though homeowners with wells are subject to the same watering regulations as other residents, the county cannot monitor their use. More importantly, she said, the water is virtually free.

"Nothing is metered, and nobody pays for the water that comes out of the ground, so that's a big concern," she said.

Some other problems with Royal Highlands' design will not be apparent unless it grows much larger, Wieczorek said. Unlike Spring Hill, which for its time had a relatively sophisticated master plan, Royal Highlands is little more than a grid of roads in pockets of land shaped by the developers' ability to acquire them.

No land is set aside for churches, parks or schools, Wieczorek said. Other than some variation in lot sizes, there is no component of high-density development or a walkable retail area that might let residents effortlessly mix with one another.

"What they don't have is a mix of uses," he said. "What we consider a complete community has park space, maybe some employment opportunity. You want pedestrian access. You want public spaces connected by something other than automobile traffic."

The biggest hope for Royal Highlands is that it never becomes large enough for these factors to become big problems, former county commissioner Len Tria said.

The northern part of the project is part of the Annutteliga Hammock, which Swiftmud is buying up to protect water recharge areas and wildlife habitat.

And, if the area continues to grow in popularity with buyers, Tria said, developers might assemble portions of it to build into new developments, which would be subject to stricter development standards and presumably would offer a more modern plan.

"These lots are not expensive lots," Tria said. "If you look around at availability of land, there's not that much out there. This could probably catch somebody's eye."

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