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County clears way for Lowe's in Tarpon Springs

For years, county officials have lamented the dwindling supply of land reserved for industrial businesses.

But on Tuesday, the Pinellas County Commission voted unanimously to let another industrial property slip away.

Against the recommendation of county planners, commissioners approved a land use change that would clear the way for a new Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse on U.S. 19 in Tarpon Springs.

"We're ecstatic," said Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris, who spoke in favor of the project at the meeting.

County planners urged commissioners to reject the proposal because they feared it would set a precedent that would further shrink the county's industrial land inventory.

But commissioners overrode the recommendation, at least in part because Lowe's promised to fix a troublesome stretch of road as part of the deal.

Tarpon Springs officials said changing the property's designation from industrial to commercial would bring it in line with nearby properties along the U.S. 19 corridor, said Renea Vincent, director of the city's planning and zoning division.

"Everything around it really is commercial," she said.

The 18.8-acre project is bordered by U.S. 19 to the east, Pine Street to the south, Huey Avenue to the west and Live Oak Street to the north.

George Cantonis spoke on behalf of his family, which has run the Acme Sponge and Chamois Co. on the southwest corner of the property for 50 years. The Cantonis family sold the land to Lowe's. The sponge company will continue to operate at the same site.

Cantonis said accessing U.S. 19 has become a hardship for the business. "Trucks from our facility simply cannot go north (on U.S. 19)."

As part of their development agreement with the city, Lowe's has offered to pay to realign and extend Live Oak down to Spruce Street, where a new traffic signal will be installed at the intersection of U.S. 19.

Mark Reichert, president of nearby A-B-C Packaging Machine Corp., told commissioners that his company had been lobbying officials for more than three decades to put a traffic light at the intersection of U.S. 19 and Live Oak Street.

Reichert said truck drivers face a dangerous situation when they try to turn left to head north on U.S. 19 from Live Oak. The situation has become "intolerable" to the point that the company has considered relocating, Reichert said.

The new route and traffic signal could solve that problem, he said.

The proposed road realignment and new traffic light could encourage other industrial businesses to pursue nearby properties once the truck route issues are solved, said former Mayor Frank DiDonato, who also supports the project.

"I think it's vital for Tarpon Springs," he said.

But Brian Smith, director of the county's planning department, disagreed. He said the project would negatively affect traffic in the area by increasing volume and congestion.

Several commissioners said they wrestled with the decision, trying to balance the need to preserve industrial sites with the benefits of the road improvements. "I don't want to see Tarpon come back for any other changes (to industrial land)," said County Commissioner Ken Welch.

The total cost of the project, including the land purchase, is around $30-million. It's estimated the Lowe's will create between 80 and 120 new jobs.

The City Commission approved Lowe's preliminary development plan in December and will consider final approval at a future meeting.

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

County clears way for Lowe's in Tarpon Springs 04/08/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 9, 2008 5:44pm]

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