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County commissioners to talk about changing development rules for downtown Palm Harbor

PALM HARBOR — Pinellas County Commissioner Nancy Bostock worried about leaving a mess for her grandchildren to clean up. Another commissioner, Norm Roche, wondered if there wasn't a simpler solution.

But County Administrator Bob LaSala warned them about the troubles with "spot zoning." Meanwhile, 50 frustrated Palm Harbor residents watched.

Commissioners held a work session Friday to discuss amending the Historic Palm Harbor Master Plan, a 2001 document that guides development in downtown Palm Harbor. The subject is on the agenda for this Tuesday's commission meeting.

The reason for the proposed change centers on Geographic Solutions, a software company with more than 130 employees. It's based in the district between Alt. U.S. 19 and County Road 1, known as Omaha in the Palm Harbor area.

In 2009, the company got county approval to construct a new building on Georgia Avenue. In Geographic Solutions' proposal, the first two floors would be used for business and the third floor, residential. That adhered to the guidelines in the master plan.

But last year, company owner Paul Toomey realized he didn't include enough office space in the building design. He knew that changing the residential third floor into offices wouldn't be allowed under the plan.

The company approached the county for help to solve the problem. On Friday, in front of about 50 Palm Harbor residents and business owners, county planner Gordon Beardslee reviewed his department's idea to help.

The idea, which Beardslee has discussed publicly at least three other times, is to amend the master plan to include "transfer of development rights." A TDR is a mechanism that allows an owner of land that can't be fully developed, perhaps for historic or environmental reasons, to transfer the development rights on that property to another location.

If TDRs are allowed, Geographic Solutions could use an undevelopable portion from one of the four properties it already owns as a credit, allowing it to put more office space in its new building.

Neil Valk, a real estate investor who owns the property in downtown Palm Harbor that houses Peggy O'Neill's Irish Pub and Eatery, and coincidentally leases out office space to Toomey, expressed his frustrations with the proposal.

"The Historic Master Plan was originally written to preserve Palm Harbor from such convoluted things as TDRs,'' said Valk. "It's difficult for me to stand up here and talk about my tenant, but when he moves out and into a new building nearby will there be parking for my building or will he have used up all the public spaces?''

Toomey, who started his business 18 years ago out of his Crystal Beach home, responded. "The building was already approved and the issue for us was, we realized we needed (more) office space. So we asked the county to help us — whatever vehicle we'd use to achieve that goal, we'd use it,'' he said. "Do we have to leave, look at another community? We are good corporate citizens of Palm Harbor.''

It's unclear what county commissioners will do Tuesday.

Although Commissioner Susan Latvala has been a supporter of the amendment since it was presented last year, citing "a need to bring jobs to Palm Harbor,'' other board members are skeptical.

"If there was no such things as TDRs, would Mr. Toomey be able to accomplish his (expansion) goals?'' asked Norm Roche.

"I want business. I want Geographic Solutions in Palm Harbor," Roche said. "I just don't think this is the answer.''

Piper Castillo can be reached at pcastillo@tampabay.com.

County commissioners to talk about changing development rules for downtown Palm Harbor 01/06/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 6, 2012 8:04pm]
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