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Pipeline route near seniors park

The Starkey family doesn't want the natural gas line on land ripe for development, so the pipeline builder changes its plan.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2000


ODESSA -- When the Starkey family learned the Williams Corp. had proposed running its interstate Buccaneer natural gas pipeline across their prime developable land near Odessa, the family was unhappy.

After an exchange of words, Buccaneer Pipeline officials obliged the Starkeys, one of Pasco County's oldest ranching families, by shifting the corridor about a quarter-mile farther south.

The previous route placed the pipeline across undeveloped pasture. The new route runs the pipeline near the northern edge of Country Place Village, a seniors community of 440 mobile homes on State Road 54.

Not everyone is happy with that turn of events.

A county citizens advisory committee, formed to study the 46 miles of pipeline expected to cross southern Pasco, has demanded the route be shifted north again.

"This doesn't seem like a very bright move. I wondered if the folks at the mobile home park knew anything about it," said Tim Hayes, a Land O'Lakes lawyer on the advisory committee.

Hayes added, "Here we have retirees in very close proximity to one another in mobile homes. Once a mobile home catches fire, you can kiss it goodbye."

But Jay B. "Trey" Starkey III, who is developing some of his family's thousands of acres, said it was never his intention to endanger his southern neighbors.

He said the pipeline might even be a plus for County Place Village: The gas corridor, sufficiently wooded, would screen residents from future development on the Starkey's land.

"We're not trying to jam it down on those residents," Starkey said. "As far as residents are concerned, it does create a natural 50-foot buffer where nothing will happen on their backside."

In a variation of the squeaky-wheel-gets-the-grease theory, the Starkeys have loudly defended their rights before pipeline representatives.

Not so Country Village Place. If the six homeowners contacted by the Times on Friday were any indication, the park has issued hardly a peep of protest.

Neither the park's sale office nor the manager's office knew a thing about the pipeline.

Not even homeowners association president Richard Czternastek, whose home along the northern edge of the park would be most exposed to the pipeline, has raised the issue.

"No one has mentioned it at our meetings," said vice president Dave Black, who then added: "But if there's a potential for explosion, I'd recommend it be diverted further north."

County Place Village opened in 1986 2 miles east of Little Road and 3 miles west of Gunn Highway.

Built around a community swimming pool and recreation center, the park is noteworthy for its well-manicured lots, tidy double-wides and expensive sedans in the driveways.

As for the Starkeys, they have divested most of their land holdings in western Pasco. They plan to develop their remaining acreage, including Longleaf, a subdivision of about 900 homes just west of Country Place Village.

Since details about the pipeline were announced last year, the Starkeys have accused the pipeline company of bullying tactics.

The 36-inch reinforced steel pipe would run 646 miles from Mobile, Ala., under the Gulf of Mexico, and across Florida to Cape Canaveral. Buccaneer proposes cutting a 50-foot swath across Starkey land for about 2.5 miles.

"These guys just sit around a room and come up with what they think is the best program," Trey Starkey said. "They're imposing on our time and the county's time."

The family plans to build homes on land north of Country Place Village. Starkey said the northern route was too disruptive to those plans. The southern route also sits on Starkey land, but it is farther removed from those future lots.

"We're running gas to all the people in our houses," he said. "But it's a different thing to run a one- or two-inch gas pipe versus having a 36-inch pipeline in your back yard."

The family's argument didn't persuade the citizens advisory committee, which has completed its report to county commissioners.

Commissioners will pass the recommendations to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency asked to approve the pipeline route.

Bob Allen, another Land O'Lakes representative on the committee, said protecting the Starkeys' uninhabited tract at the expense of a densely populated mobile home park seemed unfair.

"It's interesting that the major property owners have the ability to get the route tweaked, but we small property owners in Land O'Lakes can't get that same thing," Allen said.

Buccaneer officials, including project manager Brian O'Higgins, said the company could go either way on the route selection.

If approved by the federal government, pipeline construction is scheduled to begin in January. Gas could flow as early as April 2002.

"Either one of those routes is fine from a pipeline construction point of view," O'Higgins said.

But if the route shifts north again through his future development, Starkey said Buccaneer will have to pay a premium for the land.

"We're going to make them pay as much as they can," he said. "The price of playing poker has gone up."

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