LARGO — For more than a quarter-century, the Missing Links Driving Range has been a magnet for families and tourists who gather at the spot on East Bay Drive to hit some balls or take a turn in the batting cages, the miniature golf course or the ice cream hut.
Now, despite passionate opposition from community members and a petition signed by about 1,400 people, Largo commissioners have voted for a zoning change that will allow Missing Links to be replaced by a RaceTrac gas station.
Most of the elected officials feel that, because the site at 1201 East Bay is private property, its owner has a right to do what he wants with the land.
However, a number of residents had been pleading for Missing Links to be saved. They note that there's no shortage of gas stations, but Missing Links offers the only combination of driving range, batting cages and mini golf course in mid-Pinellas County. Meanwhile, the RaceTrac that will replace it will be right across the street from a large Rally station.
"Missing Links has become a staple of this community. It is the only driving range south of Countryside with lights ... It has the only batting cages south of Celebration Station for Little Leagues," Missing Links employee Bob Blair told commissioners at their meeting Tuesday night. "This place means more to the city of Largo than any gas station could ever mean."
Andre Fecteau, who delivered petitions to City Hall opposing the change, pleaded with commissioners to buy the property for $2.5 million and turn it into a park with a paying tenant.
"I have thousands more signatures I could have loaded up in your inbox," Fecteau told them. "This is the most universally hated and despised thing to come before the council ever, to change that driving range to a gas station."
The driving range is on the south side of East Bay Drive at Highland Avenue, next to an Everest University location and bordering the Largo Central Park Nature Preserve. Of the 8.1-acre site, RaceTrac intends to lease 2.4 acres fronting East Bay, according to city documents. No development is planned for the 5.7 acres in the rear of the property, which is intersected by a Duke Energy easement and power lines.
William Hancock of Clearwater, who owns the property, did not return calls seeking comment.
Largo commissioners were asked to rezone the property, changing its designation from "recreation/open space" to "commercial."
Katie Cole, an attorney representing RaceTrac, argued that it's an appropriate change under Largo's comprehensive plan. She noted that the other three corners of that intersection are all zoned commercial.
"Your decision tonight does not close a business because you're changing a color on the map," Cole told commissioners. "What it does do is give the property owner the opportunity to maximize, if he so desires, as a business person and pursuant to his own property rights, the opportunities on his property."
Commissioners worried about getting sued if they turned down the request, but Largo's city attorney told them they had some discretion when deciding whether to approve or deny it. "I can't sit here and tell you you're legally obligated to approve this," Alan Zimmet said.
Commissioners voted 5-1 to okay the change anyway. Vice Mayor Woody Brown voted against it, saying he was uncomfortable rezoning a single property rather than a larger area.
Mayor Pat Gerard was absent, in Tallahassee on Florida League of Cities business.
Commissioners Harriet Crozier, Curtis Holmes, Robert Murray, Jamie Robinson and Michael Smith felt they had no legal rationale for opposing the change. The Pinellas Planning Council, Countywide Planning Authority and Largo Planning Board had already approved it.
"The fact remains this is private property," Holmes said. "If we denied the owner this, we would actually be creating an adverse situation for him, then."
"I think this fits our comprehensive plan and fits the future of Largo," Murray said.
Missing Links is likely to stay open through August, said Jim Smith of Belleair, who co-owns the driving range but doesn't own the land it's on.
"We're looking at a 90-day period, if everything goes through the permitting process," he said. "We have to tell customers we lost our lease. The biggest comment we get is, 'Why do we need another gas station?' There are seven within a mile of us."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.