SAFETY HARBOR — Amid allegations of flip-flopping, former mayor and current mayoral candidate Andy Steingold says his opinions about a controversial development project for the former Firmenich Citrus Center property have remained consistent.
Steingold does not support a proposal by the developer, the Richman Group, to build a 246-unit apartment complex and offices on the 35-acre, industrially zoned property near the corner of State Road 590 and McMullen-Booth Road.
In City Commission meetings on Aug. 20, 2012 and Oct. 1, 2012, Steingold, as mayor, voted to authorize and proceed with the drafting of a development agreement with the Richman Group. However, Steingold never voted on the proposal itself.
Mayor Joe Ayoub does not think the distinction is important.
"(Steingold) could say they're just procedural votes, but he had the opportunity to stop this project on his watch if he wanted to," Ayoub said.
During those meetings, which are viewable on the city website, Steingold raises concerns about further commercialization along McMullen-Booth Road north of Walgreens and the traffic the apartments could create on SR 590 —- still his two big sticking points today.
In an interview this week, Steingold said he became concerned about the apartment proposal in 2012 as he talked to residents.
"When you have a majority of the people that will be affected by the project coming forward and speaking out against the project, you're up there to do their will," Steingold said. "You've got to balance the interests of the constituents and the rights of the property owners to develop the property."
"I think the community would rather see what I've understood to be light industry or single-family residential," Steingold said.
According to the city code, light industrial zones are "established to provide for light industrial development, warehousing, wholesale distribution, and related intensive commercial uses." Listed permitted uses include "community gardens" and "pet grooming" but also "construction material establishments" and "transportation terminals."
A buyer wishing to use the property for permitted light industry would not need to seek approval from the city.
Light-industrial zoning regulations require only a 20-foot buffer between the development and land zoned for nonindustrial uses, meaning an industrial buyer could commence operations as close as 20 feet from residents' property lines. The Richman proposal calls for at least a 100-foot wooded preservation buffer between the apartments and homes.
Ayoub, who joined the City Commission majority in approving the project, said supporting light-industrial development and opposing multifamily residential development on the basis of compatibility and traffic is a contradiction, because industry has more impacts than residences.
Commissioner Nancy Besore, who voted against the project and is running for mayor against Ayoub and Steingold, said she disagrees. Certain kinds of light industry, like doctors' offices, would have less impact than the proposed apartments or even single-family homes when considering ground cover, she said.
Besore would rather have industrial development on the site than the apartment complex. While an industrial buyer would not be legally required to appear before the City Commission, she dismissed what she called "the smokestack threat" — that big industry would swoop in and build on the Firmenich property without first consulting the town or the residents.
"I've never known that to be done, and I've been watching that process for 23 years in Pinellas County," she said.
Steingold would not comment on whether he'd rather see the Richman Group's apartment complex than another light-industrial use, instead deferring to the residents.
"My understanding of the position that the residents took was that they would rather maintain the present use of the property than the Richman development," Steingold said. "It is my belief that the community would be more open to a land-use change should someone wish to develop single-family homes."
Neither would Steingold comment on whether he would support the proposal if Richman amended it to alleviate his concerns about commercialization on McMullen-Booth Road.
"I don't want to make a single-handed decision without the input of my constituents," he said.
Steingold said he understands the community would rather have condos than apartments because condos attract "nontransient" residents who have "skin in the game," echoing a sentiment Besore expressed at a Nov. 19, 2012 workshop.
At the workshop, Besore said she wished Richman had been open to discussing condos, because the commission "would have been happier with residents that I would feel confident would have an investment in this community. I'm just really concerned about your market study and who these people are going to be."
"We have tons of condos, but they don't look like that," Besore said during an interview Tuesday. "If the apartments had looked like quaint little condos, that would have been a whole different story."
Josh Solomon can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JSolomonTIMES