How best to preserve Pinellas' dwindling green space?

A recent recommendation by staffers that Pinellas County commissioners reject a proposal to transform a golf course into a housing development could be the forerunner of a new approach to the redevelopment of privately owned recreational spaces.

Commissioners are poised to discuss the creation of rules that would limit the redevelopment of such privately owned acreage so that more of it remains green. The concept is similar to the commission's move to preserve industrial acreage; such spaces are so important to the quality of life in Pinellas their preservation outweighs property owners' rights to do what they want with their land. Commissioners want their rules to apply to privately owned lands in cities, as well as in unincorporated Pinellas.

"Preserving green space is a priority in our county," Commissioner Ken Welch said. "We've done that with public space. Now we have to look at how we balance that with private parcels."

The idea appeals to environmentalists like Barbara Walker and other members of the Clearwater Audubon Society, who praised the county staff's recommendation that a proposal to develop the Tides golf course in unincorporated Seminole be denied. As a result of that report, developer Taylor Morrison withdrew its proposal and the Tides will remain a golf course, at least for now.

In recommending denial, the staff said that although the proposal met all county rules, the harm to the quality of life and environment from converting open space outweighed the advantages of having another condominium complex.

"The Clearwater Audubon board (is) going to be writing a letter to the commission," Walker said. "We're going to commend them on their decision about the Tides and their sensitivity to the big issue. . . . Conversion is a big issue in many areas of the county and could affect everybody."

It's not just the loss of wildlife habitat and green space that Walker and others worry about. It's the impact caused by the influx of more people in a limited space. The effect on traffic is one example, Walker said.

"The traffic here is just horrible," she said. "I just can't imagine putting more cars on the road. . . . I really question what additional growth is going to do."

And, Walker said, she thinks the concept of limiting the development of green space, whether it's publicly or privately owned, is popular among many residents.

You can see how the public reacts very strongly against losing green space, she said. Opponents to the redevelopment of the Tides, for example, got thousands of signatures on petitions to stop the proposal.

But others are more skeptical.

City officials say it's hard to comment when no proposed rule is yet on the table, but they see potential problems with limiting a property owner's rights and trying to regulate cities' rights.

"I'd have to really understand what kind of framework they're trying to establish," Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said. But, "I can't imagine how the county would regulate us. . . . That would be, I think, a kind of infringement on the right of a city."

Limiting such development will have an economic impact, he said. And the county will have to figure out a way to get around an essential element of zoning that supports the highest and best use of land.

"I think there are all kinds of ramifications (to the idea)," Horne said. "I think it's easier said than done."

Ed Armstrong, a Clearwater lawyer who handles development issues, agreed that it's a multilayered issue that has to take into consideration the tension that already exists among property owners, developers, governments, neighbors, environmentalists and others.

"In terms of could they do it? Perhaps," Armstrong said. But the commission "would have to be judicious and careful in how they structured (the rules). . . . It creates more questions to be answered once they start drilling into it."

Armstrong said that, until any rules are established, it's hard to evaluate how a developer might gain permission to revamp privately owned recreational land, like a golf course.

"I'm not sure what you would have to show, but I think the community buy-in would be a critical component," he said.

Commissioner Welch agreed that resolving the issue will be a difficult balancing act between the public interest and private property rights.

The commission has set a priority of preserving green space, he said, "but at the same time you need to balance that with how do we facilitate development and smart growth? ... What is the compelling public interest (that lets) us to say no to that private land owner?"

Commissioner Janet Long conceded the issues are many and emotional. But, she said, the county is coming late to the discussion when there's little land left to develop.

"We have to begin thinking in a different way," Long said. "You're really putting a footprint on what (we leave) for our kids and our grandkids."

Perhaps the hardest task in accomplishing this "big, bold idea" is the most necessary and that's getting a "consensus that everybody's on the same page," she said.

"Will (that) be easy? No," Long said. "But big, bold ideas are never easy."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450. Follow @alindbergtimes on Twitter.

How best to preserve Pinellas' dwindling green space? 01/30/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 31, 2014 7:38pm]

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