LARGO — An aerial map of Ulmerton Road shows one of the busiest spots in Florida's most densely populated county. Between homes, mobile home parks, strip malls and Largo Mall, there's not much open land.
There are swaths of gray — parking lots — and a few small green patches. One of them is at the northwest corner of Ulmerton's intersection with Seminole Boulevard.
That green patch is Briarwood Travel Villas, roughly 14 acres of recreational vehicles and open land dotted with trees. Briarwood's new owner wants to replace the 138-space RV park with a 260-unit apartment complex, and Largo's community development department has promised him up to $50,000 in incentives.
The park's neighbors are upset, though, and argue the new complex will block sunlight and breezes, create more traffic and hurt property values. Briarwood's new owner, Steve McConihay, says the apartments will be an economic benefit for the city. He also questions whether the complex would negatively impact neighbors, given recent criminal activity in the RV park.
The City Commission weighed in last week, unanimously approving a land-use change that allows McConihay to move forward with planning for his apartments. His consultant told commissioners the apartments would not be Section 8 or affordable housing.
McConihay bought the park in March for $1.25 million, according to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office. The park had been in unincorporated Pinellas County, but in July, McConihay agreed to annex into Largo.
As part of the annexation agreement, the city promised up to $50,000 in benefits, which will cover his $2,400 application fee for the land use change and other city fees, and reimburse him for drainage, landscaping and other improvements required by agencies like the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
At last Wednesday's meeting, Barry Chase, president of the homeowners association for the nearby Coastal Ridge neighborhood, gave commissioners a petition with more than 60 signatures urging them to reject the land use change. However, Chase and his neighbors left the meeting feeling like approval of the change was a foregone conclusion.
"I'm not sure if these meetings are just a formality, just to hear us, or if they really do any good," he said.
McConihay's consultant reminded commissioners this was just one of the first steps in a long approval process, which includes neighborhood compatibility meetings between developers and residents.
Then McConihay told commissioners he felt his apartments would benefit property values. Police are called to the current park often, he said, mentioning an October raid of an alleged meth lab by Largo police and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.
"Nothing destabilizes a market for housing values more than crime," McConihay said. "I'm a developer, and a developer puts forth a vision of how to meet a need, and the need was very obvious."
Commissioners approved the land use change, but had a few questions for McConihay. Commissioner Curtis Holmes urged him to respect his neighbors as the apartments are designed.
"If I lived in that neighborhood, and I had a developer coming in, I would do exactly what they are doing," Holmes said. "During your site plans, keep them in mind, because they were here first."
The land use change still needs two approvals by Pinellas County boards. The neighborhood compatibility meetings will be held before a final development order is issued, according to Carol Stricklin, Largo's community development director. The county meetings are scheduled for December and January, and the neighborhood meetings will come later, probably in early 2013.
Briarwood's neighbors plan to be at all of them.
"We anticipate following through every step of the way," Chase said.
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.