LARGO — After a bumpy ride through the regulatory process, the plan for a new apartment complex that will replace the Briarwood Travel Villas and RV Park has cleared its last major hurdle.
But before construction begins in the spring, officials will make some last-minute changes to a legal agreement. This came up last week as Largo changed the zoning of the RV park's property near Largo Mall, officially clearing the way for 260 apartments to be built there next year.
In the year since the plan for the apartment complex became public, it has taken heat from multiple directions.
For starters, people in neighboring large mobile home parks such as Coastal Ridge and Palm Hill Country Club complained that tall apartment buildings would block their sunlight and breezes and hurt their property values.
To address their fears, apartment developer Steve McConihay agreed to limit the apartment buildings' height to no more than three or four stories, with the taller structures to be located farther away from the complex's immediate neighbors.
He also agreed that none of the new apartments would be Section 8 rentals or affordable housing. Instead, tenants will pay market-rate rents at the complex, which will be located off Seminole Boulevard just north of Ulmerton Road.
These requirements were outlined in a legally binding development agreement between McConihay and the city.
Now, however, both sides are backing away from legal language in the agreement that specifically forbids subsidized housing in the complex. They're going to eliminate that part of the agreement.
Why? Because Largo recently received a threat from someone who spoke of filing a complaint about the deal under the federal Fair Housing Act, said city attorney Alan Zimmet.
Ed Armstrong, an attorney for the developer, assured officials that changing the legal agreement won't change the plan for market-rate apartments.
"This applicant has no intention whatsoever of building low-income housing," Armstrong stressed to Largo commissioners at a meeting last Tuesday. "I think the concern was, it was probably not the wisest course of action to specifically state that in the development agreement."
Commissioners are expected to amend the development agreement during two public hearings next month.
The developer, McConihay, bought the bankrupt RV park last year for $1.25 million. His plans for an apartment complex there have also taken heat from legal advocates for the poor, who warned that many of the RV park's low-income residents could end up homeless because they couldn't afford to move.
Under pressure from Pinellas County commissioners who were holding up approval of the project, the developer ponied up $30,000 for a relocation fund. The money has helped Briarwood tenants pay for movers, rents and utility deposits as they relocate.
Currently, 15 families remain in the RV park's 138 spaces, with seven slated to move out by the end of the month, property manager Tina Harper told Largo commissioners.
"There's no one reason why some of these people still remain," Harper said. "Most everybody is finding some place to go."
Briarwood will close Nov. 1, she said.
Largo commissioners sought assurances that the remaining eight households would get help moving out.
"The eight families will definitely be taken care of by that date?" Commissioner Robert Murray asked.
"To the extent that they cooperate and assist and help with that," Armstrong answered. "We can't force anything. But they've had and will continue to have every opportunity to relocate successfully."
Some residents of the RV park are no longer paying rent and may simply stay until the place closes Nov. 1. The developer hopes to break ground on the apartment complex by April.
City officials are eager to see the complex built because they view it as an upgrade over the RV park. Though Briarwood is rustic and leafy, it also housed a number of sex offenders and had a meth lab bust last October.
Briarwood, which Largo annexed last year, is also viewed as under-developed property in a bustling part of the city. Largo's long-term goals include concentrating denser development around Largo Mall, in downtown, and at U.S. 19 and East Bay Drive/Roosevelt Boulevard.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.