TARPON SPRINGS — The City Commission voted Tuesday night to buy downtown land, but left it to commissioners seated after next month's election to decide just what to do with it.
The property could be used to connect Tarpon Avenue to an Orange Street parking lot, for a city park or both.
"No official decision has been made what to do with the property," City Attorney Jim Yacavone said after the 3-2 vote.
The commission directed Yacavone to close on the property at 143 Tarpon Ave. by March 15. It also gave Mayor Beverley Billiris authority to sign documents.
Irene Weissenborn of Naples agreed to accept the city's $150,000 offer for the property that her brothers bought with sponge-diving proceeds. The offer is 25 percent more than the $120,000 appraised value.
"By voting to purchase the property, the intent is to complete the 10-year-old plan," said John Tarapani, a downtown property owner. "And that's parking and a pedestrian connection that can be used as a multiple-purpose lot for special events."
The property is a source of controversy, and the new commission will likely have to sort things out.
Last year, some downtown property owners were alarmed when they learned a group was planning to turn the property into a park. They said the land was previously designated as a connector between Tarpon Avenue and 40 parking spaces built in 2003 at East Orange Street and Safford Avenue.
A March 9 municipal election will replace Billiris and Commissioner Peter Dalacos, who have reached their term limits. Incumbent Chris Alahouzos is running for reelection and faces political newcomer Beverly Kurpinski.
Billiris, Alahouzos and Commissioner Susan Slattery voted to buy the property. Dalacos and Commissioner Robin Saenger voted against.
On March 16, a day after the closing deadline on the property, the new commission will be sworn in.
David Archie, who faces Matt King for mayor, met with a few downtown property owners Tuesday. He said he is still not convinced that a connector is what's needed for the property.
"I don't think that's the best use for the money," Archie said.
Figures as high as $300,000 to complete a connector have been discussed, but no solid numbers have been presented.
King said he's also concerned about the cost of the project.
"I don't have an objection to it being a connector to Orange Street," King said Tuesday. "My concern would be, and I don't know the answer to that right now, how much would that deplete (Community Redevelopment Area) funds? My vote would have to take that into account."
Alahouzos said the land should become a combination of parking, a park and public restrooms. He noted that the city currently rents public restrooms from a downtown business.
"Every time I speak to a business owner, they always want to talk about parking and public restrooms," Alahouzos said. "This property can contain both."
Kurpinski, his opponent, disagreed.
"I don't think using that piece of ground for a cut-through parking lot is best right now," she said. "The money could be used for the betterment of someplace else."
Jeff Larsen and Joe Muzio are fighting for Dalacos' seat. Larsen said he wasn't prepared to state a position. He said "it's something that needs to be discussed further."
Muzio said maintaining the property's value should be a concern.
"I would like to see a building in that area," Muzio said. "I don't believe making that a parking lot is the best use of that property. As a Realtor, the best use for a property is its prior usage, and that was a building."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.