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Tarpon Springs City Commission refuses to rush into land sale

TARPON SPRINGS — They're eager for a deal on the city's most valuable property for sale, but city commissioners refused Tuesday night to rush negotiations over what one called "the big enchilada."

A developer has proposed purchasing the former nursing home at 501 S Walton Ave. — potentially worth millions of dollars — to convert it into an assisted living facility.

Since Tarpon Springs' charter requires voters' approval for large sales of city-owned property, the city could hurry to place a referendum on the ballot of the March municipal election. But to make that deadline, officials would have to skirt the regular process for a development agreement.

"I just don't see the need to jump into this thing and agree to a contract before we see any form of a site plan," said Commissioner Townsend Tarapani.

Still intrigued by the proposal, commissioners want to examine possible development options for the site. But they're going to slow the pace, first looking into getting the property appraised and opening it up for other prospective buyers.

The nursing home has sat vacant for eight years, so dilapidated that independent horror films have used it as a set and police SWAT teams have knocked holes in the walls during training exercises. The last tenant moved out in 2004 and let the building deteriorate, the city said, leading to a tangle of litigation over the broken lease.

The city estimates the nursing home could generate some $50,000 a year in property taxes. The Pinellas County Property Appraiser values the property at $2.1 million. It's a 4.4-acre parcel, but the city would likely retain an acre for parking uses.

Qualified Property Management, owned by Harry Burnard in New Port Richey, approached the city about purchasing the nursing home, even though the property hadn't been formally advertised for sale. The company runs other assisted living facilities, including Sunset Harbor in Tarpon Springs. It would buy the Walton Avenue property at fair market price to renovate for a 100-bed assisted living facility that would create 60 jobs.

But for commissioners, too much remained unexplored.

"I'm not convinced this is the right thing to do right now," said Vice Mayor Chris Alahouzos, "without approaching other buyers to make sure we're doing the right thing."

Without knowing the property's appraised worth, Mayor David Archie also backed away from drawing up a contract: "I am not comfortable with locking in on a figure (when) I don't know what it's going to be."

The rush to reach a referendum was reminiscent of the city's last-minute pondering last year over purchasing the Linger Longer mobile home park.

Tuesday, commissioners scrapped the push toward tight deadlines. But they stayed open to entertaining the idea of an assisted living facility.

Addressing the developer's representative, Tarapani said, "You here tonight, to me, is a window of opportunity."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or swang@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Tarpon Springs City Commission refuses to rush into land sale 10/17/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 7:27pm]
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