PALM HARBOR — At the second town hall meeting called to discuss potential changes to the Historic Palm Harbor Master Plan, County Commissioner Susan Latvala, a Palm Harbor resident, made it clear she wants more business activity in the area.
"We want to encourage businesses to grow, sustain business and bring in new businesses to Palm Harbor,'' Latvala said. "We believe bringing in jobs is a good thing."
About 100 members of the community attended the meeting Wednesday — a smaller number than the 150 who showed up in July — but among them was Paul Toomey, whose company, Geographic Solutions, is the catalyst for the changes.
Last year Geographic Solutions, a software company with 130 employees and three facilities in Palm Harbor's historic district, won county approval to construct a new building on Georgia Avenue. The company proposed business uses on the first two floors and residential on the third floor — a proposal that adhered to the guidelines in the master plan.
However, earlier this year, the company approached the county and asked if the third floor could be switched to office use. That would not be allowed under the current master plan.
As he did in July, on Wednesday county planner Gordon Beardslee explained the county's idea to amend the 2001 Historic Palm Harbor Master Plan to include the use of transfer of development rights, or TDRs.
The mechanism would allow 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 utilize an undevelopable portion of one of the three other properties it owns as a credit for creating more office space in the new building.
Business owners and residents of Palm Harbor have expressed concern over the potential impacts to the tiny business district of independently owned stores and restaurants located east of Alt. U.S. 19.
John Treskovich, a retired contractor and 40-year resident of Palm Harbor, is worried about the large office building and the added congestion it could cause in the district.
"It seems with all the vacant buildings and office space outside of downtown but still near Palm Harbor, why can't they go there?'' he said.
Treskovich also wondered, "Where does an average citizen benefit from the county jumping through all these hoops to specifically aid one business?''
Latvala denied any favoritism toward Geographic Solutions.
"Mr. Toomey is being treated just like any other property owner would be treated,'' she said.
Beardslee's presentation included ideas on how to help with parking problems along Florida Avenue, the district's main street. The county is proposing a three-hour time limit for on-street parking as well as installing signs to inform motorists of alternative public parking choices to the south.
Beardslee also reviewed a survey conducted earlier this year in which it was revealed that some public parking spaces are not being fully utilized during peak times.
The survey showed that the county should be able to reduce the requirements for public parking. For example, under current rules, for every 1,000 square feet of floor space, a restaurant must provide approximately six parking spaces. Under the county's proposal, the owner would only need five parking spaces.
After the meeting, Neil Valk, owner of the property that houses Peggy O'Neill's Irish Pub and Eatery and, coincidentally, leases out office space to Toomey, seemed skeptical of the county's ideas.
Valk said he met with the county more than a year ago to discuss how Palm Harbor could benefit from an easing of parking requirements, but he didn't get the response Toomey has gotten.
"So many of the vacant buildings could be converted to restaurants or retail if the parking requirements were more aligned with other cities,'' he said. "I had meeting after meeting, and they did nothing. Now they seem to be giving it all to one business, giving it all to Paul Toomey.''
The county's Local Planning Agency, an appointed citizen board that makes recommendations to the County Commission, will review both the TDR program and the proposed changes to parking requirements during its Oct. 13 meeting.
Toomey briefly spoke to the crowd Wednesday. He stressed that he is a Palm Harbor resident too, and he wants to work with the community.
"And our company brings good jobs to Palm Harbor,'' he said.
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.