SAFETY HARBOR — After five months of protests, petitions and passionate speeches at public meetings, a vocal group of Safety Harbor constituents won a small victory Monday in their quest to halt the construction of a four-story apartment complex.
City commissioners unanimously rejected the $45 million project, which includes 276 housing units, a lavish common area and office buildings, as it was proposed.
Rather, they invited the Richman Group of Florida, located in West Palm Beach, to bring revised plans back to the commission on Feb. 18. This time, commissioners said, they want to see a complex with a softer, more neutral look, fewer units, and buildings no higher than three stories. Photos of other Richman properties shown at the meeting featured buildings that were bright orange and gold.
"Go out to the property and sit out there and get a feeling for who we are," Commissioner Nancy Besore told developers, who still looked upbeat after four and a half hours of battering. "I know your hearts are in the right place."
"We'll be here, with two- and three-story buildings," replied Robert Pergolizzi, representative for the Richman Group.
The proposed project is on the northeast corner of McMullen-Booth Road and State Road 590 at the former Firmenich Citrus Center. The issue is before the commission because the Richman Group wants the industrial zoning on the property changed.
Developers had hoped the plan would meet minimal resistance after it survived the city's Planning and Zoning Board in a 6-1 vote last month. The Richman Group made several concessions to win the board's approval, such as eliminating proposed retail establishments, decreasing the number of units and adding wildlife preservation areas.
But critics seemed anything but appeased Monday, packing the meeting room so tightly they spilled out the door onto the sidewalk. They used their three-minute time slots to criticize the proposed development, questioning its impact on traffic, property values and the quaint feel of Safety Harbor.
"We've listened to all of the studies, yet I see there are flaws," resident Suzie Lemberg told commissioners. "All of the real estate comparisons are from cities that are not dedicated to preserving old Florida charm, and it's ludicrous to say this will not have a traffic impact. You as a City Commission must answer to residents."
By law, commissioners could only consider evidence, not emotional appeals. But that didn't stop residents from trying to pull at elected officials' heart strings.
One witness threatened to boycott downtown businesses if commissioners approved the project. And several others warned that people who live in apartment complexes are "transient," a term the developers contested.
"These apartments are upwards of $1,000 for a one-bedroom," Pergolizzi said. "These are people who will be invested here. They'll be here to stay."
JoAnn Wechter, owner of Brady's Backyard BBQ, was one of few Safety Harbor residents who stood up to support the proposal.
She criticized residents for discriminating against renters.
"I'm embarrassed at this point I even own a business here," Wechter said. "Just because these people aren't homeowners doesn't mean they don't have a right to live in a nice community and quaint development."
She added that some of her fellow business owners welcome the complex and the customers it would bring. But they're afraid to speak up and alienate existing customers.
"It's a really difficult situation," she said. "But I stand by the fact that we need this."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.