SAFETY HARBOR — Voters will cast their ballots March 11 to decide two contested City Commission races.
The election could have implications for development of the former Firmenich Citrus Center property at State Road 590 and McMullen-Booth Road. New commission members could take the majority from those who support a proposal by the Richman Group to develop a 246-unit apartment complex on the site and build office space along McMullen-Booth.
Seat 3 Commissioner Nancy Besore resigned to run for mayor. She is the Richman Group's most ardent opponent on the commission and is taking a calculated risk on her mayoral bid. If Besore loses and if her commission seat is won by a candidate who favors the proposal, she could lose traction in her attempt to bury the development.
Running to complete the remaining year in Besore's term are Dean Harmeson and Andy Zodrow.
Carlos Diaz and Ray Irvin are running for Seat 4, now held by Commissioner Nina Bandoni, who chose not to seek re-election.
Dean Harmeson moved to Safety Harbor in 2010 but has been a resident of Pinellas County for more than a decade. A U.S. Navy veteran, Harmeson now works as an intelligence contractor for U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
Harmeson serves on the zoning board and zoning board of appeals and said he often goes to City Commission meetings to see how the commission votes on proposals the zoning board approved.
Harmeson said he wants responsible growth and development to be the cornerstone of his term in office, if elected.
"Safety Harbor doesn't have a lot of room, in my mind, to develop," Harmeson said. "There are select areas that are able to be developed, and one of the major concerns is how are we able to protect the environmental aspects of the properties but also meet the desires of the developer."
On Firmenich, he supports the Richman Group's proposal to build apartments because it provides larger preservation buffers between the development and the adjacent single-family homes than is required for light-industrial development.
"What we tried to communicate to the public is that it's zoned for industrial light, and that can take on a lot of purposes and uses," he added.
Candidate Andy Zodrow has lived in Safety Harbor since 1994. He is an attorney for the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County.
Zodrow said he attends City Commission meetings infrequently, though he participates to a greater degree when there is a huge issue about which he is particularly passionate. He said as a county attorney, he works closely with county and municipal officials, and so he knows what it takes to be a commissioner.
For Zodrow, the development of Waterfront Park is an issue of particular import.
Additionally, he said, he wants to lead the city's response to rising flood insurance premiums. The federal government, which controls those premiums, rates municipalities on the Community Rating System. He said he wants to do all he can to boost the city's rating so residents can qualify for lower premiums.
Zodrow said that while he's not intimately aware of all the details about the Firmenich development proposal, "I don't have an objection to the property being rezoned, but I wasn't happy with the intensity level . . . The number of individual units was just too high."
He added that he has concerns about traffic congestion at the intersection of McMullen-Booth and SR 590.
"McMullen-Booth at 5:30 (p.m.) is just a parking lot," he said.
Carlos Diaz has lived in Safety Harbor since 2002. A former certified public accountant and Major League Baseball catcher, Diaz now owns a logistics company.
Diaz said he does not attend commission meetings "on a religious basis," but tries "to attend the ones where there are important things on the agenda."
To prepare for the role of commissioner, Diaz said he reviewed the budget and talked with the city manager and assistant city manager about pending projects. He said he attended the city's Citizens' Academy, which educates residents about city government, and Leadership Pinellas.
If elected, Diaz said he wants to steer business investments into the city.
"My position is that with some higher-tier businesses in our city, we could actually grow the retail business into our city," he said. People want retailers in Safety Harbor, but retailers are "skittish" about opening up shop in Safety Harbor because it isn't a destination for those with lots of disposable income, he said.
Diaz believes the light-industrial zoning should be maintained on the Firmenich property.
"We should give that a shot, and see if we can attract a similar, noninvasive company like the Firmenich business" to bring jobs to Safety Harbor and the area, he said.
In 2010, candidate Ray Irvin moved to Safety Harbor from Indianapolis, where he had served on the City-County Council. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he spent 12 years at the Indianapolis Department of Public Works and in 2005 was appointed by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels as director of greenways, bikeways and blueways for the Indiana Department of Transportation.
In 2011, Irvin applied for the position of city manager of Madeira Beach and was among three finalists.
Irvin ran for Safety Harbor City Commission in 2013 but lost to Richard Blake in a three-way race.
Irvin said he attends six to eight commission meetings a year. He is on the city's Finance Advisory Committee and said he watches commission meetings online.
If elected, Irvin said he wants to foster a citywide conversation with residents about what the community would like to build toward in future decades. He said he wants to promote smart growth, attracting small businesses, shops and galleries.
"I believe Safety Harbor should remain an environmentally sensitive arts and culture destination for the region," Irvin said. "I would like to see us seriously work toward inviting America's retirement-age community into Safety Harbor to make it their home."
Irvin said he wants to gauge the community's feelings on what to do with the Firmenich property. He said he does not believe the community wants to see an apartment complex, and is concerned about the density of the project as well as the traffic it could cause.
"The question is, right now, whether we want to keep our city a small town or part of the larger metropolitan sprawl of Pinellas County," he said.
Josh Solomon can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155. On Twitter @JSolomonTIMES