PALM HARBOR — Pinellas County is considering amending the master plan that protects this unincorporated community's historic downtown so a local company can expand its offices.
Geographic Solutions, a software company with 100 employees and three facilities downtown, won county approval last year to build a fourth building on Georgia Avenue.
The company said the building would have business uses on the first two floors and residential on the third floor — a proposal that adhered to the guidelines in the Historic Palm Harbor Master Plan, created in 2001 to ensure the area would retain its historical integrity.
Then, earlier this year, the company approached county planners and asked to use the third floor for office space, according to Gordon Beardslee of the Pinellas County Planning Department. But that switch would create more business usage than allowed on the property, leaving county officials wondering how to they could accommodate the company's needs.
The county planning department came up with a potential solution: a mechanism called "transfer of development rights," or TDRs. The mechanism allows owners of land that can't be fully developed, perhaps for historic or environmental reasons, to transfer the development rights to another location.
County officials realized that an unusable piece of one of the three other properties Geographic Solutions owns could be used as a credit for creating more office space in the proposed new building.
It's not a typical use of TDRs.
"TDRs have been used most in cases involving wetlands and transferring the rights to buildable upland areas,'' Beardslee said.
However, the Historic Palm Harbor Master Plan, which guides downtown development, makes no provision for TDRs. The county is holding a series of community forums on the idea of amending the master plan to allow TDRs.
Last week Beardslee and county planning director Brian Smith explained the concept to about 150 Palm Harbor residents at the first of those forums.
They also discussed downtown's shortage of parking spaces and streetlights and floated another proposal: Property owners who agreed to help finance streetlights could avoid having to meet county parking space requirements.
In a downtown that at times has a serious lack of parking, it's a controversial idea.
"There didn't seem to be a lot of interest'' in the idea, Beardslee said after the meeting.
Brenda Brown, whose florist shop Iris and Ivy has been downtown on Florida Avenue since 1983, wants to make sure the original vision of the master plan remains intact. She wonders whether the amendment to allow TDRs would detract from that vision.
"The master plan visualized a walking community, a place for people to come, visit, shop and enjoy the restaurants in the historic area," she said.
Across the street from Iris and Ivy, the metaphysical shop Celestial Circle opened in May. Owner Gina Lawrence worries that allowing Geographic Solutions to expand further downtown will "bring big changes,'' she said. "Big business could take away from the old downtown feel of the area, and that's why many of us are here.''
Paul Toomey, president of Geographic Solutions and a Palm Harbor homeowner, said he is not interfering with the master plan's goals.
"We are trying to be good corporate citizens, good neighbors," he said. "This situation is a classic case. We designed the building and then we grew. We are successful, and in several ways, our success benefits Palm Harbor.''
Brown, whose business has neighbored Geographic Solutions' headquarters for several years, says traffic congestion and limited parking downtown have been problems for years and stretch beyond Geographic Solutions.
She said the debate over the company's plans is good for the community.
"It is serving as a lightning rod,'' she said. "At the meeting the other night, owners seemed to be saying, 'Okay, I'm going to start paying attention to what's going on in downtown, and I'm going to air my grievances too.' It's making people get involved.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.