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Approval of office building for downtown Palm Harbor sets off a furor

CLEARWATER — County commissioners have approved a change to development rules that clears the way for the construction of a three-story office building in Historic Downtown Palm Harbor.

Though growth in a down economy might normally be celebrated, the 5-1 decision sparked outrage among the standing-room-only audience at Tuesday's County Commission meeting. Most of them had come to object to the change, and many who signed up to speak came from outside Palm Harbor, including St. Petersburg, Seminole and Indian Rocks Beach.

"I find this entire process tonight to be a perversion, an obscenity, to what purports to be a representative republic in Pinellas County," Palm Harbor resident John Treskovich said. "Very poorly done."

The decision also revived interest in incorporating Palm Harbor into a city. Before the commission vote, Palm Harbor fire commission member Norm Atherton said he was neutral about the idea of incorporating.

"After tonight, I'm going to be for it — 100 percent," Atherton said. He referred to a petition with 536 signatures opposing the development rule change. If those people "each get 10 people to agree with them, we'll have the city of Palm Harbor," he said.

Commissioner Ken Welch, who was chairing the meeting, said he understood the anger and disappointment.

"I know for a lot of you this was not the decision you wanted or were hoping for," Welch said. "This board has listened to the community for some time. The decision is not what many of you wanted but we have listened."

The furor centered around a request by Geographic Solutions, a software company with 130 employees, to build a three-story building on Georgia Avenue in the Palm Harbor historic district. When the county originally granted approval, the proposed building was slated to have offices on the first two floors and a residential area on the third.

Last year, the company wanted to substitute office space for the residential area on the third floor. That was not permitted by the 2001 Historic Palm Harbor Master Plan. County staff members recommended amending the master plan to include transferable development rights, or TDRs.

A TDR allows an owner to adjust the development density allowed on his property. For example, if the owner has two parcels and each allows 100 units, but the owner wants to build a project with 150 units, he can take 50 units from one piece and add it to the 100 on the other. The remaining parcel would then be limited to 50 units, so that the overall density of the area remains the same even though it changed on one parcel.

But some Palm Harbor residents and business owners argued that the TDR would deprive them of private property rights, limit growth and increase parking problems in the area. Some claimed the TDR was unconstitutional. Others said it, and historic district rules, were a product of Agenda 21, an action plan related to sustainable development created by the United Nations.

Many of them condemned the five commissioners who voted for it, but praised Norm Roche, the lone nay vote. Commissioner John Morroni was not at the meeting.

"You all are a disappointment to people who love freedom," Deb Caso said. "That is communism. That's what it is. When are you going to realize what communism is? … When the government is in control of everything, it's communism. There's no freedom with TDR. … Your vision isn't that of a free people."

She referred to Agenda 21, the rules of the historic district and the possibility that a building could be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which she saw as control of private property by government and the UN.

"Control of land and social engineering, that's what's happening here," Caso said. As for the UN's plan for sustainable development: "We don't want to save everything for our future. We need to live now and we need our children unindoctrinated from this globalism and green crap. That's putting it politely."

Tony Caso said, "I see we have one commissioner with a brain that listens and every one else is asleep as usual. … Thank you for destroying the town of old Palm Harbor. … Commissioner Roche tried to steer you in the right direction. You don't even want to listen to one of your own."

Tony Caso, like others, vowed to have their revenge at the ballot box. "The people are tired of being stepped on and we will push back," he said. "That's not a threat. That's a promise."

Tony Caso said the commissioners should not underestimate the local tea party and other similar movements that have "thousands of members in this county. … We have boots on the ground and we know how to knock on doors."

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Approval of office building for downtown Palm Harbor sets off a furor 04/28/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 28, 2012 2:55pm]
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