TARPON SPRINGS — Surprised city commissioners are asking why city planners inserted a line in the city's new development code that could make it easier for big box stores and chains to locate in the historic downtown and Sponge Docks.
The inserted sentence exempts such big businesses from having to get a conditional use, which is an extra level of public review and city approval during which officials can determine whether the business would be compatible with its surroundings.
"A big box can come in and there's nothing we can do about it," Commissioner Susan Slattery after learning about the line in the new code. "We need to look at it. I don't think the commission realized that the verbiage was in there."
In 2009, in the wake of controversy over approval of a Walmart Supercenter on a riverfront site on U.S. 19, city commissioners approved new development rules designed to discourage chain stores, also known as "formula-based businesses," from moving into historic areas of the city.
One of the objectives of the new formula-based code was to "ensure that small, locally owned independent businesses, unique to Tarpon Springs, are able to compete with large retail chains."
Then in March of this year, commissioners approved another set of development regulations known as the SmartCode, intended to guide development and redevelopment in the downtown and Sponge Docks areas. The SmartCode is designed to create self-contained, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods.
The city spent months working on the SmartCode and discussing it at public meetings. In March, just before a vote was taken, the city planning staff provided commissioners with a list of changes that had been made in the proposal.
That list did not include the sentence that exempted chain stores from having to get a conditional use. Several commissioners said last week that they didn't know the sentence had been inserted by the staff when they voted to approve the code on March 29.
Now, some commissioners and at least one local resident are wondering who inserted the sentence and why, especially since a new Family Dollar store — a national chain — was approved for a site in the downtown area.
The issue came to light publicly at the last City Commission meeting, when Cyndi Tarapani, a professional planner and former Historic Preservation Board member, pointed out that the sentence was added to the SmartCode without discussion by the commission.
Tarapani told the commission that city staff mentioned other, minor changes in the proposed code to the Historic Preservation Board, Planning and Zoning Board and the City Commission before those boards voted. But she said the staff failed to mention, either verbally or in writing, this "major" policy change.
"The city staff made an unilateral, independent decision to eliminate the formula-based rules from the SmartCode area — a decision for which they do not have any authority, since this is a policy decision," Tarapani said.
"If they were not trying to be devious," Tarapani said later, "they didn't put it in any single, solitary memo to any board, why is that? Because they did not want to draw attention to it for some reason."
The city planners declined to discuss the issue with the St. Petersburg Times, but referred questions to City Manager Mark LeCouris. LeCouris called the whole dust-up "so silly and absolutely ridiculous."
"This was a given that the formula-based code was in place only until the SmartCode was developed, because the SmartCode would take care of all of that and that was the whole premise of it," LeCouris said.
LeCouris contends that the SmartCode actually gives the city more control over how development will look in those areas of the city. He said it was absurd to believe that the city staff tried to "slip" language into the code.
Tarapani said the change the staff made jeopardizes the character that city officials were trying to maintain downtown and in the docks area.
"We have open government in Florida and these things are supposed to be talked about," Tarapani said. "The commission should have all the information. My problem is that the staff did not disclose the change they were making to the commission and it's a major policy change."
Slattery said she wants that element of the SmartCode to be brought back before the Planning and Zoning Board and the City Commission for discussion.
The recently approved 8,290-square-foot Family Dollar will be at the southwest corner of S Pinellas Avenue and Lime Street.
LeCouris said the chain was "made to jump through hoops" before its plans were ultimately accepted and that the SmartCode did what it was designed to do.
"You can't have more scrutiny, in my mind," LeCouris said. "That's why this doesn't make any sense."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com and (727) 445-4174.