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Hillsborough land meant for preservation now will go to the highest bidder

By Tracey McManus
This aerial view shows a 425-acre tract that the City of Clearwater is planning to sell in Hillsborough County. The vacant pasture land sits north and east of the Silver Dollar Shooters Club, along Patterson Road in the Odessa area. Complications are keeping the city from selling the land to Hillsborough County, which would preserve it for green space. Instead, the likely buyer is a multibillion-dollar company that owns the shooters club and a neighboring RV park. [Google Maps]

More than 400 acres of Hillsborough County pasture owned by the City of Clearwater will likely end up in the hands of a multibillon-dollar mobile home park operator, a fate that could sink the city’s plans to preserve the land forever as green space.

The situation is the result of rules that govern how local governments buy and sell property, with the goal of protecting the public’s interest. But the dynamic in this case could steer Clearwater from its original intent.

Clearwater officials have been in negotiations for more than a year with Hillsborough’s Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program regarding the 425 acres the city previously used for dumping treated sludge and dredged materials. ELAPP, which has acquired more than 61,000 acres of environmentally sensitive habitat since 1987 and preserved it for recreation and wildlife, submitted a $4.6 million offer for the land on Dec. 15.

But its offer was contingent on Clearwater deeding a portion of the property to a third party at the time of closing. Silver Dollar Shooters Club, which borders Clearwater’s land off Patterson Road in Odessa, has been in discussions with ELAPP about roughly 20 acres it needs to resolve several zoning violations.

The problem: Clearwater’s charter allows the city to sell land directly to another government, but it would require the sale to go to a public bid if it were to issue a deed to a private business, according to City Attorney Pam Akin.

Despite this warning, ELAPP acquisition manager Kurt Gremley didn’t change the Dec. 15 offer, saying the county has concerns about acquiring the roughly 20 acres bordering the shooting range because the land might be contaminated with lead from stray bullets. ELAPP would not be allowed to buy all 425 acres and then convey 20 acres to the shooting range because the preservation program’s rules require land it acquires to remain under its care forever.

"It’s a very fine line," Gremley said.

With ELAPP’s unworkable offer, the Clearwater City Council last week started a process that would offer the 425 acres to the highest bidder. The city was unwilling to sell ELAPP only about 400 acres because it would be left with a land-locked portion that would be inaccessible to another buyer if Silver Dollar changed its mind, according to Assistant Director of Economic Development and Housing Chuck Lane.

Ed Armstrong, a land use attorney representing the publicly traded Equity LifeStyle Properties, which owns the shooting range and sister RV park, said his client plans to bid aggressively on the entire acreage to get the sliver it needs.

"We simply don’t need all the property, but it’s strategically important enough to us that we are willing to buy the entire thing and figure out later what to do with the excess," Armstrong told the City Council. "My client has deep enough pockets to be able to do that."

In that case, ELAPP would certainly be out-bid because the program’s rules require the county to buy land at or below appraised value.

The shooting club has violated the Hillsborough County code by adding a five-stand field and two skeet fields, which were not on its site plan and do not have the required 900-foot safety zone. It also added three trap fields on an adjacent parcel not approved by its zoning plan.

Silver Dollar is set to go before the Code Enforcement Board Jan. 19, according to county spokesman Todd Pratt. The business has applied to modify its zoning plan and rezone the adjacent property to come into compliance.

With no immediate need for the remaining 400 or so acres, Armstrong said it’s plausible his client could "turn right around and enter into discussions with Hillsborough County."

But "I can’t presume what the outcome of that discussion will be," he said.

Gremley confirmed the shooting range has given no written commitment it would sell the land to the preservation program at all, let alone at appraised value. Neither Armstrong nor attorney Vincent Marchetti, also representing Equity LifeStyle Properties, responded to questions about whether the company would commit to selling the 400 acres to ELAPP at appraised value if they purchase the entire property.

Clearwater’s 425 acres were first nominated to ELAPP as a candidate for preservation in 2011 by Keystone Civic Association president Tom Aderhold. The property connects to the Brooker Creek Buffer Preserve, which connects to the Lake Dan and Lake Frances Preserve north of Tarpon Springs Road.

With Clearwater’s portion added to the preservation cluster, the connection would total more than 10,000 acres, according to an ELAPP analysis.

Aderhold has said the preservation of Clearwater’s land is vital to protect groundwater wells in the area while also safeguarding natural habitat for wildlife and recreation.

Neighbors who live around the shooting range also complained earlier this year to Hillsborough County about the business operating outside of permitted hours.

Deanna Corarito, who lives less than a mile away, said she fears this could worsen if the business holds on to the entire 425 acres.

"Imagine being hen-pecked to death, that’s what it feels like," Corarito said. "On some days if the wind is blowing the other way or there’s not a big event, we really don’t mind it so much. But when it puts on these big events from 8 in the morning to 8 at night, it sounds like a battle zone. You cannot get away from it even with the windows closed, the doors closed."

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos would not comment on the possibility that 400 acres of land the city intended to save for preservation could end up in the hands of a large corporation.

He said the offer presented by ELAPP was not legally sound.

"It’s not that we didn’t want to work with them," Cretekos said.

City Council member Hoyt Hamilton said he has faith Equity LifeStyle Properties will follow through on its word given to him in discussions that it will turn around and sell the large portion it does not need to ELAPP.

With the land going to bid starting at $6.4 million, Hamilton said the city needs "the best offer we can get" to pay for utility and other upcoming projects.

"I would be shocked if they didn’t follow through on their word," Hamilton said.

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.