Tarpon Springs project okayed but developer asked to help wildlife

TARPON SPRINGS — The new mixed-use development that will serve as the city's southern gateway to downtown will bring retail shops, apartments and a state-of-the-art medical office building.

It will also improve the quality of water flowing into the Anclote River, restore wildlife habitats and better manage stormwater runoff in an area known for its flooding.

That's the part most residents may not notice, but which the county has deemed integral to the project moving forward.

On Tuesday, the County Commission approved a land use change that helps clear the way for Meres Crossing, a 16-acre development on the southeast corner of Alt. U.S. 19 and Meres Boulevard, just north of Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital.

But commissioners, who voted unanimously and without discussion, are requiring developer AG Armstrong to mitigate the development's impact on wetlands by restoring additional wetland acreage within the city.

The Meres Crossing property contains about 9 acres of wetlands, much of which has sustained damage from dredging over the years. Though federal and state regulations allow off-site mitigation — the loss of wetlands in one area can be offset by the creation, restoration or preservation of wetlands in another area — city commissioners have said they'd like to see improvements done locally.

"That's something we've been focusing on, so I'm glad that the county weighed in," said City Commissioner Peter Dalacos, who attended the County Commission meeting.

Representatives with AG Armstrong had already identified about three acres in Tarpon Springs for mitigation, said company vice president John Heuer. They intended to replace invasive vegetation with native species along the Pinellas Trail, which serves as the project's eastern border. They also planned to widen and enhance an outfall system at the city-owned golf course across the street from the development.

But most of the mitigation was planned by way of a 157-acre conservation easement in Hernando County. That would prohibit logging and development in an area that abuts the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

To comply with the new county-imposed guidelines, the company will expand its mitigation area in Tarpon Springs to about 20 acres, which will include land adjacent to the golf course and nearby uplands, said Heuer.

The project, estimated to cost between $60-million and $100-million, will be the first of its kind in the city. At the northern end, near Meres Boulevard, would be a shopping center anchored by a Sweetbay supermarket. The second phase of the project includes the new medical office building, a parking garage, an assisted living facility and apartments or condos between the shopping center and the hospital.

AG Armstrong already owns the land on the northern end, but is still working out details of a contract to purchase other city-owned parcels close to the hospital, Heuer said.

The company has submitted a site plan for the northern portion, which is under review by city staff. Once that's completed, the matter will be taken up by the city's Planning and Zoning Board, then the City Commission.

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

By the numbers

16.6 acres is the size

of property

9 acres of wetlands are on the property

20 acres of wetland mitigation area are planned within Tarpon Springs

157 acres of wetland mitigation area planned in Hernando County

$60- $100M Estimated cost of project

Tarpon Springs project okayed but developer asked to help wildlife 11/04/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 5, 2008 9:00pm]

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