Saturday, February 17, 2018
News Roundup

North Pinellas economy is rebounding, but residents stand against development

City Hall was packed. And residents, one after another, urged their elected officials to say no.

The development is too big and tacky, one said. It will damage the environment, ruin the view and block the sun, said another. It will cause the surrounding areas to flood, the schools to overcrowd. It will kill trees and birds. And the traffic, said practically everyone. My God, the traffic.

Sound familiar? It should if you live in Dunedin, Palm Harbor, Clearwater, Largo, Tarpon Springs or Safety Harbor.

Resident groups in those communities have organized petitions, staged protests and lobbied elected officials in recent months to block new homes, apartments, stores and hotels.

The intensity of protests has surprised city officials who fretted for years about lack of growth, in some cases hiring full-time staff to woo businesses and housing.

Now developers want to put money back into the economy after years of stagnation and job loss, but neighbors in mostly built-out North Pinellas are protesting at every turn.

"People have gotten very sophisticated at stopping these projects," said Ed Armstrong, a Clearwater attorney who represents developers. "It's hard to develop anything in Pinellas County these days that some people don't view as offensive."

The "not in my back yard" mantra is not new, but residents are more empowered to organize than ever before, using email and social media to galvanize neighbors. In at least two cases, false rumors perpetuated on the Internet riled up residents, who attended government meetings en masse.

The level of anger and anxiety on display, some say, is unprecedented. Several times, as residents have testified before public officials, they've wept.

"Memory of the housing crash is still very fresh. There is a lot of shell shock as far as new developments and home building," said Sean Snaith, an economic forecaster and researcher at the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness. "People are struggling with their labor situation, and suddenly any threat or hint that a change could cause their home value to diminish is magnified. That's the psychology of economic trauma."

It's because of that acute reaction that developers and city managers know even good projects could hit walls when they go before elected officials for approval.

An example: A high-end apartment complex proposed for the defunct Firmenich Citrus Center, an industrial site in Safety Harbor. The project could have brought hundreds of customers to Safety Harbor businesses and captured tens of thousands of dollars of tax revenue. The Safety Harbor City Commission approved the project, but county commissioners quashed it in the face of major resistance from residents. Developers are challenging that decision in court.

In such development cases, elected officials are required by law to consider only hard evidence, not popular opinion, when making their decision. But even for officials who campaigned on pro-growth platforms, siding against a roomful of angry residents is difficult and politically risky. Residents sometimes have threatened to eject commissioners from office if they allow a project to go forward.

That's when elected officials need to look at the big picture, says Tarpon Springs City Manager Mark LeCouris. Cities weed out the bad projects and put the good ones through several rounds of vetting long before they make it to commissioners in a public hearing, he said.

When the economy boomed and money flowed, commissioners could block an occasional development and it was fairly painless for cities. But now it can hurt a lot.

Tarpon Springs commissioners recently rejected a developer's request to build new homes in a partially built subdivision after neighbors objected. According to city estimates, the project would have injected $700,000 into city coffers — a princely sum in an era when municipal governments continue to rely on reserve funds to fill budget gaps.

"Residents want parks and roads and services, but they don't want development near them, and they don't want to pay higher taxes. They can't have it both ways," LeCouris said. "It puts elected officials in difficult places, but they will have to be tougher if they want the good of the whole community."

Here are some examples of development projects that spawned vociferous objections from residents, despite their potential to bring new homes, commerce and jobs to the local economy.

Safety Harbor

Hundreds of residents rallied against a proposed 246-unit, high-end apartment complex on State Road 590 at McMullen-Booth Road on the site of the defunct Firmenich Citrus Center. Residents said the apartments weren't a good fit in Safety Harbor and would generate too much traffic. Some said they were willing to risk future industrial development of the land near their homes rather than have the apartments.

It seemed like a hard-won victory for West Palm Beach developer the Richman Group when Safety Harbor commissioners approved the project. But then the County Commission, citing hundreds of letters from residents, voted against the project, a ruling that is now under appeal.

Clearwater

Clearwater Beach is more popular than ever with tourists — good news for Clearwater's tourism-based economy — but a proposed 15-story Hampton Inn at 655 Gulfview Blvd. met stiff resistance when it was first proposed in February.

Beach residents complained about a "canyon effect" being created on the southern end of the island, home to other high-rise hotels and condominiums. Neighboring smaller hotels also balked, saying the proposed hotel would block their guests' views and sea breezes.

City Council members also criticized the project as too much building on too little land. They rejected it in a 3-2 vote.

In June, after developer Steve Page submitted a scaled-back plan, the council approved the 171-room project.

Tarpon Springs

Developer D.R. Horton wanted to build nine more homes than currently permitted in an existing, unfinished subdivision on Bayshore Drive, but decided against the project after city commissioners denied a zoning change to allow 51 homes in a space now zoned for 42.

City staff had recommended approval, saying the new homes could bring in $700,000 for the city and help with flooding and other issues. But after a grueling three-hour discussion in which neighbors bashed the proposal, commissioners denied the zoning change and D.R. Horton walked away.

Dunedin

Neighbors and a volunteer citizen advisory group fought plans for a Dollar General store at 1326 San Christopher Road.

Among their issues: fears that the store — the fourth to be built within a 2-mile radius — would fail, resulting in a vacant building that would drag down property values; that the store would bring noise, traffic congestion and road damage; that it would hurt two nearby mom-and-pop convenience stores; that it would destroy the neighborhood's charm; and that it would earn the city the moniker "Discount Dunedin."

Ultimately, city commissioners said they sympathized but concluded that the law required them to approve the application because it met city code. The store is under construction.

Largo

Last year when developer Steve McConihay bought the bankrupt Briarwood Travel Villas and RV Park at the intersection of Ulmerton Road and Seminole Boulevard for $1.25 million and talked of replacing it with an apartment complex, city officials were pleased. They viewed the plan as an upgrade. They even offered the developer incentives such as waiving city fees and reimbursing him for drainage improvements.

However, the neighbors were fighting mad. The 14-acre recreational vehicle park is next to a couple of large, well-groomed mobile home parks, Coastal Ridge and Palm Hill Country Club. Residents argued that tall apartment buildings would block their sunlight and breezes, create more traffic around them and hurt their property values.

They worried that apartment dwellers on upper floors would look down on their homes, or that the apartments would be for people on government assistance.

McConihay responded that his project would actually benefit property values. He noted that police had often been called out to the RV park and that a meth lab there was raided last year.

All the fuss led Largo to impose conditions on the deal.

The city and Pinellas County have agreed to allow a 260-unit apartment complex to replace the 138-space RV park. But the buildings can be no more than four stories high and must be surrounded by landscaped buffers. The complex must charge market-rate rents.

Palm Harbor

Avid Development Group asked the Pinellas County Commission for a zoning change to allow construction of a Family Dollar store on the southeast corner of Virginia Avenue and Alt. U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor.

Although a building on the site, which once housed a small publishing company, had sat vacant for several years and fronted on a major road, neighbors rallied against the new store.

Dozens of residents told county commissioners they opposed it because of the size of the store, the potential for traffic congestion and the possible loss of live oak trees.

Commissioners voted against the zoning changes.

The property was later sold to Silver Mine Gifts Limited Liability Co. for about $375,000, and Ralph and Melinda Goddard now operate a jewelry and gift business from the site. The pair rely on Internet traffic for most of its sales.

"Someday I'd like to expand, and we'll have to go through the zoning process,'' said Ralph Goddard. "If (a zoning change request) doesn't go through, we'll continue like we do now, building the Internet sales.''

And what happened to Family Dollar?

Developers found a spot with proper zoning a few blocks north on Alt. U.S. 19 and Illinois Avenue. Construction is nearly complete.

Staff writers Keyonna Summers, Mike Brassfield, Charlie Frago and Piper Castillo contributed to this report. Brittany Davis can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or [email protected]

     
   
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