Business

Residents of one Tampa Bay neighborhood fear death of their 'Old Florida Living'

Posted June 10, 2018 6:07 p.m. EDT

OLD TAMPA BAY

Less than a mile from where 50,000 cars a day speed along Hillsborough Avenue lies a quiet waterfront enclave of Old Florida Living.

Peacocks strut past weathered cracker houses. Children ride horses along narrow roads overhung with mossy oaks. After a storm blows past, everyone comes out to see if anyone needs a hand.

But like many neighborhoods in Tampa Bay, this one near Oldsmar is changing and residents aren't happy about it.

Nonie Slaughter is losing her privacy to a three-story behemoth under construction next door. Bruce Manny wonders if complaints about his crab traps come from someone trying to drive him off his land on Old Tampa Bay so they can put up another McMansion or two. And Rose Ann Parsons marvels at the moxie of builders who named a new subdivision Eagle Pointe .?.?. even though the eagles disappeared when the bulldozers moved in.

They and their neighbors say Hillsborough County officials have let them down, favoring new development over everything that makes their little corner of the county so special.

"It truly breaks our hearts," Slaughter says. "The reason we live in the neighborhood is that it's in the country. At what point in time are you going to quit worrying abut money and greed and start saving the character of Old Florida?"

• • •

Just east of the Pinellas-Hillsborough line, this small peninsula jutting into the bay is legally called R.E. Olds Farm, after Ransom Olds. He was the automotive pioneer who developed nearby Oldsmar but went back to Michigan when the city's growth stalled in the 1920s.

In the 1950s, Parsons' father-in-law dug some canals. Individual lots were sold, but the area kept its rural flavor even as chain restaurants and stores began to mushroom along Tampa Road/Hillsborough Avenue.

Forty years ago, Manny settled at the end of Seagull Way, right on the bay.

"I like to be out in the country and back then this way out in the country," he said on a recent steamy afternoon, working on his traps in his cluttered yard. "When I moved out here, a guy who crabbed was over there; a mullet man owned that place there. I bought this from a commercial fisherman."

His friend across the street, Slaughter, spent years in the Washington, D.C., area, advocating for AIDS funding and LGBTQ issues, before returning to her native Florida. She discovered R.E. Olds Farm one day when she spotted a sign for "Waterfront Property" while heading to Clearwater.

Turning down a sleepy road, "I saw the moss dancing in the trees and I felt like I was home," she said. "This is where I wanted to grow old and spend the rest of my life."

It was a long drive from her job as director of catering at the University of South Florida, but it was worth it to live in an old-fashioned neighborhood where residents watched out for each other. She built a house; from her deck and bedroom she could see the bay.

The county had long since rezoned the area to allow greater residential development but the recession and housing crash had curtailed new growth. Then, a few years ago, Ryland Homes announced plans for a subdivision, Eagle's Pointe. It was near an eagle's nest that had been there for decades.

Slaughter, Parsons and others mobilized. They made up T-shirts that said "Old Florida Living'' -- that's what they call their neighborhood -- and signs with red lettering that proclaimed "Developers Stay Out" and "Ryland Homes Not Welcome."

The fight was unsuccessful.

"They came right out here in the middle of all of what we have and tore it up and put in 23 cookie-cutter homes," Parsons said. "To us, this is not subdivision land; everyone buys their own piece and builds their own house. We don't have anything against people living here but the way it was done was not necessary."

Gone were the eagles; gone were the fine old trees, replaced by newly planted ones propped in place with boards. Residents moving into their $500,000 homes realized they were living near HorsePower for Kids, a nonprofit horse farm and pet sanctuary that had been there since 1994. They began to complain about the smell.

A county inspector came out and told owner Armando Gort he needed to do something. He hired a man to haul off some manure, then paid $5,000 for a manure spreader.

"I built this when there was nothing here," Gort said. "People know what's next door, but they still get a house and they're still complaining."

• • •

About the time the Eagle Pointe project cranked up, a young couple bought the lot next to Slaughter's on Seagull Way. It was just 60' wide -- the same as Slaughter's -- but they wanted to put up a nearly 3,000-square-foot house, so big they had to apply for setback variances for the front and sides. They also wanted a variance to build within 25 feet of the wetlands and canal in back though the rules required a 50-foot setback.

At a hearing four years ago, Slaughter explained that she had built her house strictly to code, which had limited it to 2,100 square feet. She had set it back from the canal even more than required so her neighbor to the north could still see the bay, she said

If the new neighbors were allowed to build so big and so close, Slaughter told the hearing officer, she would lose her own bay views and much of her privacy.

In the end, the officer approved the variances. He noted that the lot had been created in 1974, before the 50-foot requirement took effect, and that the new owners had agreed to add 1,000-square-feet of native plants to compensate for the reduced wetlands.

"The applicant has sought the use of the variance process to accommodate a home of reasonable size while addressing environmental considerations," the officer wrote.

Construction started in 2016, stalled when the owners got divorced, then resumed. Work is far enough along that the house with its concrete base and wood frame top soars above Slaughter's, blocking her view of the bay, as she predicted.

"People are so greedy," she said. "They've got to have this square footage and don't stop to think about those of us who've been out here."

County officials said last week that the construction permit -- which has expired at least twice -- is currently active. However, the permit for the septic tank system has expired and no certificate of occupancy can be issued until the Florida Department of Health approves one. Additionally, the builder will have to submit a survey showing the property meets required setbacks and elevations.

Although it won't be finished for months, the four-bedroom, three-bath house with a four-car garage already is on the market for $799,000.

The Key-West style home ''will feature stunning views of beautiful Tampa Bay from the wraparound balcony and 4th-story lookout," the listing says. "This hidden gem is centrally located and surrounded by a little bit of Florida history."

• • •

More and more of the history of R.E. Olds Farm is disappearing. Manny is the only fisherman left in the area. He and his partner, Norma Ferrer, routinely get calls from investors wanting to buy their property with its wide-open views of the bay.

"They want to build as big and fast as they can," Manny grumbles, though he intends to stay put.

Like him, Parsons and her husband wonder why. Why do people want to move here only to change what attracted them in the first place?

"If people want to live in the city," Winard Parson says, "they ought to stay in the city."

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.