One of the trees Taylor Morrison tore out as part of preparing its Keystone property for development. Courtesy of Jeanne Holton Carufel.
Where were you in 1991?
I know where the U’s were: The U.S. was gearing up for the Gulf War. The USSR still existed but was about to dissolve. And U2 released what I think is their best album, “Achtung, Baby.”
I was single but engaged to be married to a wonderful woman who shared my, um, let’s say “quirky” sense of humor. Our two kids were strictly theoretical at that point, so I hadn’t yet yanked out — I mean LOST — all my hair. As a young reporter for Florida’s largest paper, I worked in a bureau office that no longer exists and lived in an apartment complex in Palm Harbor on the Highway of Strip Joints and Tattoo Parlors, aka U.S. 19.
Florida was a very different place then. The governor was a popular Democrat named “Walkin’” Lawton Chiles who celebrated his second inauguration by firing a potato gun toward the Governor’s Mansion. Miami had been awarded the state’s first major league baseball franchise and for some reason named it for a fish. And the state actually had an agency trying to manage our growth. Wild, huh?
I mention all this because 1991 is when Hillsborough County said yes to the owner of 200 acres in the rural Keystone area north of Tampa, developing it at the density of one home per acre.
However, the owner didn’t carry out those plans. For three decades, the land remained forest, swamp, and pasture. There was talk of the county buying it as part of a wildlife corridor.
Here’s how a Tampa Bay Times story described the land just a year ago: “There, scores of grand oaks stand along McGlamery Road. The property … is also home to cypress trees, wetlands, and a pasture that still has the trough that served its former tenants — cattle.”
Keystone residents dig that rural vibe. In 2001, they persuaded county officials to approve a plan designed to keep their region as undeveloped as possible, despite bordering fast-growing Pinellas and Pasco counties.
One requirement: No development density higher than one house on 5 acres. Other rules require two-lane roads, sewage disposal via septic tank, and water that’s drawn from wells, not central utility lines that would enable a larger development.
Everybody in Keystone was pretty happy about that — until a year ago, when they noticed something different about that 200-acre parcel.
Surveyors’ stakes began popping up like toadstools after a hard rain.
That’s how Keystone residents found out that an Arizona-based homebuilder named Taylor Morrison had bought that 200-acre parcel from the owners, grandchildren of a Winn Dixie co-founder, for nearly $12 million.
That was well above what the county had offered, even though county officials had labeled the land “essential” to their wildlife corridor plans.
In early 2022, work crews started clearing the property to build a new subdivision that didn’t conform to the Keystone keep-it-rural plan. Instead, Taylor Morrison is following that old 1991 land-use map — high-density housing, major water and sewer lines, you name it.
Nobody from the company or the county bothered to warn the neighbors what was happening. They felt blindsided. As you might guess, they are outraged.
“There’s no precedent for this,” said Jeanne Holton Carufel, a WMNF-FM disc jockey who, at age 70, has been living in Keystone for 20 years.
What’s worse, the neighbors say they have caught Taylor Morrison flouting a number of the county’s development rules. One, Missy Nordbeck, started calling Hillsborough County officials to demand they do something about this rogue developer.
“I thought they were going to come help us,” she told me. “They weren’t. They were complicit in it.”
What’s interesting to me is what the neighbors’ fight against this development has exposed about how things work in Florida — or rather, how they don’t.
Brace yourself, folks, because this time-travel story gets ugly.
Unlike Jake from State Farm
As a movie fan, I am always interested in a well-told time-travel tale. “Time After Time,” “The Terminator,” “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” — all fascinating films with the premise of jumping around on the calendar.
I don’t drive a DeLorean with a functional flux-capacitor. However, I discovered my battered Nissan Rogue was capable of traversing the decades to reach the long-ago era occupied by Keystone.
Once I arrived I found a community with gently winding streets and lanes with names like “Gator Hole Road.” It’s a throwback to a bygone Florida, before the place got so crowded and the pace so frenetic.
As Carufel showed me around, I saw horses grazing in the placid pastures, stands of cypress domes, and places where you can buy blueberries or eggs. The community is a mix of rambling old houses and a few new ones set well back from the two-lane pavement.
You can see why the Keystone regional growth plan spells out that residents value “nature above commercialism; dark, star-filled skies at night above the glare of urban lights; and the sound of crickets and frogs above traffic noise.”
But I wouldn’t call it a quiet place, not anymore.
The Taylor Morrison work crews have been busy turning pasture, swamp, and forest into something that won’t look anything like the rest of the neighborhood. You can’t see them at work now, though, because the company built a huge berm by the road to block the view.
That appears to be the company’s solution to all the angry phone calls reporting them for violating the county’s rules.
It started last spring, not long after the development work commenced. Nordbeck alerted county officials that Taylor Morrison workers were illegally chopping down a lot of the trees. Stacks of severed trunks lined the property, making it hard to deny what they’d done.
County officials issued a rare stop-work order and told the company that it faced a fine of more than $300,000. The company said that it had merely done the work out of order and had not exceeded what was in its tree-cutting permit application — which the county had just approved.
The implication was that Taylor Morrison executives had taken a calculated risk in doing the unpermitted work and figured a fine was just the cost of doing business.
The Keystone critics have made other complaints, such as noting that the workers have been most active on the weekends, when no county inspector can look over their shoulders. The general attitude among Keystone residents is that, unlike Jake from State Farm, Taylor Morrison is NOT a good neighbor.
The Nelson Muntz chorus
I contacted Taylor Morrison seeking a comment on what the company’s been doing in (and to) the Keystone neighborhood — I mean besides all their slipping and sliding, peeping and hiding.
I am not sure what response I expected. Silence? Denial? Maybe a corporate version of bug-eyed bully Nelson Muntz, the character from “The Simpsons” known for pointing at people and shouting, “HA-ha!”
The response I got was far blander.
“As we have maintained all along, the development plans for this community were lawfully approved by Hillsborough County,” the company’s statement said. “Accordingly, Taylor Morrison is continuing to develop the property and we are working to ensure that it will complement the natural elements and beauty of the surrounding properties.”
Incidentally, the communications manager who emailed me that statement specified that it was “not attributable to one individual, but rather Taylor Morrison Florida Operations.”
So when you read that comment, please picture every single employee in the company’s offices in Tampa, Sarasota, Orlando, Naples, and Jacksonville standing up all at once to speak the words in unison.
And THEN they’d all point toward the Keystone community and shout, “HA-ha!”
One dead gopher
As with most disputations in modern American life, this one landed in court.
The 20 Keystone residents who filed suit didn’t sue Taylor Morrison. They sued Hillsborough County.
They’re accusing county officials of breaking the law when they approved Taylor Morrison’s plans using that 1991 zoning instead of following the Keystone plan.
“Hillsborough County has an adopted procedure for owners/developers who believe they should be ‘grandfathered’ or vested from the plan requirements,” the Keystone group’s attorney, Jimmy D. Crawford, explained to the Tampa Bay Times. “Neither the previous owner or the current owner/developer has ever applied for such vesting.”
As part of the lawsuit, the Keystone folks have been collecting a lot of what lawyers call “discovery material” from Hillsborough County and Taylor Morrison. As a result, they are uncovering some unpleasant truths.
One is that a Taylor Morrison contractor moved 77 gopher tortoises off the site — and in the process, damaged the shells of two of them and killed one.
Gophers are already classified by the state as a threatened species. Killing one in the process of evicting a whole lot more is not the best way to “complement the natural elements and beauty of the surrounding properties.”
And it turns out that, once again, Taylor Morrison jumped the gun.
An internal company email that Nordbeck shared with me reported that a county official had told the developer “there have been a series of missteps along the way in both starting work early, clearing the site early, some outstanding fines for tree removal, and most recently getting ahead of schedule with gopher tortoise permitting.”
Listen, I’ve been spent 40 years covering these big-money, out-of-state developers who waltz into this state I love so much and act like the rules don’t apply to them. Regardless of what our do-nothing legislators think, these contemptuous schmucks are a far bigger threat to the Florida way of life than a whole battalion of drag queens.
When a big developer does something destructive before bothering to get a permit, and then does it again and again and again, that’s not “a series of missteps.” That’s intentionally ignoring the law, and we shouldn’t put up with it.
A big but
The Keystone lawsuit is far from over, but a judge has already made a ruling that I think could point the way to resolve it.
After a four-hour court hearing, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Mark R. Wolfe told Taylor Morrison he wasn’t going to stop the development work from proceeding — BUT!
As Pee Wee Herman would tell you, this is a biiiig but.
The judge said Taylor Morrison can’t sell a single one of the homes it’s building until the court case is resolved. The company can’t take a single down payment, draw up a single sales contract, finagle a single buyer into signing on the line which is dotted.
During the hearing, a Taylor Morrison vice president testified that the company had so far invested $35 million ruining — er, excuse me, creating — this new addition to the rural Keystone landscape. He said they hoped to have homes ready for sale by year’s end, so they can start raking in a big profit to cover such a huge investment.
But now they can’t do that, and it’s their own fault.
The judge said the Keystone neighbors had convinced him the company “acted in violation of permits and ordinances in its pursuit of speedy development of the property. Plaintiffs, therefore, have established through evidence that they would be irreparably harmed and without an adequate remedy at law if Taylor Morrison were allowed to sell, convey, or otherwise transfer all or some of the property.”
Therefore, the judge declared: “The sale of homes to third parties … would not be in the public’s best interest because the homes may be required to be demolished at the conclusion of the case.”
The Taylor Morrison scofflaws will now be strongly motivated to settle the suit so the company can get back to running roughshod over the development rules.
But the Keystone plaintiffs say they want to take this case to trial and set a legal precedent. They want to make sure nobody else has to go through what they’ve been going through. The potential is there for more Taylor Morrison time-traveling.
“There’s hundreds of these old zoning cases out there,” Nordbeck told me.
Nevertheless, I think they should compromise. I am not an attorney, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express. But I would advise the Keystone folks to offer to drop the suit so long as Taylor Morrison promises to do one thing that will make everything all right.
The company must promise that when it sells all those big houses on little lots that it’s building, it will do so ONLY if it can find a way to travel back-back-back in time to 1991 to find buyers. I don’t care if the sales staff uses a DeLorean or a hot tub time machine.
The zoning change was made for a project targeting that group of customers, so they should be the only ones allowed to buy them. Heck, to sweeten the pot they could even throw in CD of the new U2 album, “Achtung, Baby.” It rocks!
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