SAFETY HARBOR — Meetings brought accusations of car-sales techniques and scare tactics. They evoked impassioned and angry speeches. Commissioners and residents showered generous amounts of concern over several aspects of the redevelopment proposal for the former Firmenich Citrus Center.
But the developers kept coming back. Monday, they submitted a new proposal that they hope will "correct misconceptions" about their building plans.
It will also restart the process for gaining city approval, sending the revised application back for more meetings.
"We are committed to the project," said Damon Kolb, development associate for the Richman Group of Florida, adding, "This is not a bargaining chip. It's our best proposal."
The amended application limits the commercial section of the proposal to office uses, a change from the original request that could have allowed retail establishments. The revised proposal also expands buffers between existing neighborhoods and reduces the number of units in the proposed apartment complex to 276 from 296, which were compromises presented to commissioners during a November workshop.
What remains undecided: the maximum heights of the building.
"That is the one outstanding question for me," Kolb said, "because I didn't get a 100 percent clear answer from the commission on who liked it, who didn't."
Initially, the four-story height was targeted as residents' biggest problem with the proposal. But the height issue quickly became buried under other gripes over potential traffic, density of apartments and the permitted commercial uses.
Developers have prepared two options — one with buildings topping out at three stories and another with a few four-story buildings.
The construction will be restricted by a development agreement, because the Richman Group is seeking zoning changes on what's currently an industrial property.
Developers are looking into a traffic study. The revised proposal could be considered by the city's planning and zoning board as early as January but hasn't been scheduled yet. By the time the proposal reaches the Safety Harbor City Commission again, the board will have a new makeup as Mayor Andy Steingold departs, Vice Mayor Joe Ayoub shifts into the mayor's role and Richard Blake begins serving as a commissioner.
A proposed new streetlight fee lost some support Monday, but it still collected the minimum passing votes to continue to another vote and public hearing Dec. 17.
While explaining the origins of the fee to disgruntled residents, Commissioner Nina Bandoni revealed that she was against the fee despite her previous votes to move the special assessment forward.
"Those of us who are opposed to it — we can vote no, but it doesn't change anything. … I basically have gone along further with the votes because there is no other alternative at this point," she said.
At a proposed annual rate of $50.97, the streetlight fee aims to cover the $300,000 yearly cost to lease light poles from Progress Energy. If the fee reaches approval, property owners who live on public roads with publicly funded streetlights would have to pay it on their utility bills.
"We have no other means by which of collecting that deficit for this year," Bandoni said. "So it's my position that this year, we can go along with it. And then when we revisit the budget next year, we can talk about doing it differently."
In budget discussions, commissioners had debated whether to generate the funds through hiked property taxes or a special assessment. Though the fee won out, critics call it a regressive tax.
Some commissioners favored the streetlight fee as a way to designate the use of those funds.
It "holds the city accountable for spending that money on a specific purpose," Ayoub said.
The ordinance to establish the streetlight fee got a 3-2 vote of initial approval. Joining Bandoni in opposition was Commissioner Nancy Besore, who floated the idea of allowing residents to petition to turn off streetlights to avoid fees.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or [email protected]