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U.S. Home plan irks neighbors

Plans for a 181-unit development on 40 acres have residents astir. They worry about traffic and property devaluation.

By ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


EAST LAKE -- East Lake community leaders only learned of the U.S. Home Corp. development plans a week and a half ago. But by Monday night, they had assembled an army.

More than 500 people crammed into, and spilled out of, the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection to hear their community leaders lambaste a development plan that would turn what is now mostly pasture land for horses into 181 single-family homes and town houses.

"A lot of times, man doesn't know when to quit," said Ridgemoor resident Coleen Verdon. "What good will it do Pinellas County to develop that land? No good will come of it. We can't handle any more density."

The 40-acre site which backs up to the Brooker Creek Preserve is zoned for residential development, but only for 90 units. The U.S. Home plan calls for transferring some density from a nearby property it owns south of Ridgemoor Boulevard to the 40-acre site it has under agreement of sale from Robert Van Worp.

Residents worry the dense development will add traffic to their quiet neighborhoods and devalue their properties, which sit on significantly larger lots.

"It would end life as we know it in our community," said John Baker, president of the Bridlewood Homeowners Association. He has visions of dump trucks and cement trucks rumbling down his street daily for four or five years. He sees more traffic, new shopping centers and crowded schools.

But perhaps of chief concern to many residents is a fear their streets in the Tarpon Woods development will be connected to Tampa Road in Oldsmar, creating a busy thoroughfare.

Andrew G. Irick II, division president of U.S. Home's Central Florida Division, said development on the site is inevitable.

"One day there will be homes on that property," Irick said. "The question is how many."

With precious few large and developable tracts left in northern Pinellas County, Irick said, "This is the beginning of the end of development in this part of Pinellas County."

Irick showed up at the community meeting on Monday night, but Verdon said he was an uninvited guest. He was not permitted to address the crowd.

"This is our private party," Verdon said.

Outside, however, Irick was soon surrounded by residents firing questions.

Irick explained that U.S. Home owns a 27-acre undeveloped property along Ridgemoor Boulevard on which the company is permitted to build 320 units. But a floodway that runs through the property complicates its development, Irick said.

In recent years, the property was taken off the market because the county has expressed an interest in buying it, Irick said. County officials are in the process of obtaining appraisals.

Looking for other development options in the area, Irick said, U.S. Home turned its attention to the Van Worp property. Although existing zoning would permit just 91 units there, Irick said, U.S. Home decided it would make better economic sense to develop half the property with 90 single-family homes and the other half with 90 townhouses. And so the plan was hatched to transfer density from the Ridgemoor Boulevard property to the Van Worp property.

Paul Cassel, director of the county's Development Review Services department, said such a transfer would require the county commissioners to lift a 1988 condition placed on the property which specifically prohibited density transfers.

Recently, Irick said, County Administrator Fred Marquis -- through Cassel -- requested U.S. Home abandon its request for a transfer of density for the property.

"We're considering that," Irick said. "If that's what they want, there's a good chance that's what we'll do."

While the lower density might satisfy some residents, others say their chief concern is the development might trigger an extension of Forest Lakes Boulevard to Tampa Road in Oldsmar, as was once the county's plan.

Residents of the Stag Thicket and Bridlewood developments worked hard to get the road taken off the county books, said Henderson Griffith, president of the Stag Thicket Homeowners Association.

"It would open up the floodgates for that to be a true thoroughfare," Griffith said.

County officials say that won't happen. When the county assembled the Brooker Creek Preserve, there was no longer a need for the road to go through, Cassel said, and it was taken off the books years ago.

"There appears to be some community perception that plan would be put back on the books," he said. "That's just not going to happen."

Rondi Hosking, a resident of Glen Ridge East, remains skeptical, though.

"If we give them an inch, what are they going to take? A mile," Hosking said.

Ultimately, many of the local residents would like the county to buy the property and conserve it as an addition to the Brooker Creek Preserve.

Hosking said she feels as though the U.S. Home plan is a numbers game to maximize the company's profit at the expense of local residents.

"What would be the benefit to local residents?" she asked. "None."

Based on the turnout Monday night, she said, county officials should expect to see residents in force at a June 5 zoning examiner's hearing, and again at a County Commission meeting on July 7.

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