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County commissioners strike down Safety Harbor apartment plan

Developers wanted to build an apartment complex on the site of the old Firmenich Citrus Center.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Developers wanted to build an apartment complex on the site of the old Firmenich Citrus Center.

CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission dealt a surprising death blow Tuesday to a high-end apartment complex poised for construction in Safety Harbor.

The unanimous decision to deny a rezoning from industrial to residential shocked and invigorated dozens of Safety Harbor residents who protested and petitioned for more than nine months, even as the proposal survived Safety Harbor's City Commission and won approval from various other boards.

Some commissioners said Tuesday their decision was based on concerns the county is gradually losing its industrial property and becoming "a bedroom community" with few jobs.

"We've been chipping away at the industrial in this county over the last three years," said Commissioner John Morroni. "Sometimes it's for really great reasons, sometimes it's not for great reasons."

Commissioners also seemed swayed by residents who spoke en masse at every government meeting and wrote at least 308 letters pleading with county commissioners to block the project.

Opponents of the complex — including Safety Harbor Commissioner Nancy Besore — warned the complex would be out of place in quaint Safety Harbor, would cause unbearable traffic and would decrease property values.

Besore, who was on the losing end of Safety Harbor's 3-2 vote to approve the complex in February, said she was shocked by Tuesday's decision.

"I believed three people on the commission had an interest in keeping it industrial," said Besore, who folded her hands in prayer as it became clear the commission might strike down the proposed complex. "But I wasn't at all confident going into today's meeting."

The Richman Group, the West Palm Beach developers behind the proposal, had planned to build a 246-unit gated complex with a swimming pool and clubhouse at McMullen-Booth Road and State Road 590, site of the defunct Firmenich Citrus Center.

To build apartments on the property, developers needed city and county commissioners to approve a zoning change from industrial to residential. Fresh off their win in Safety Harbor and an 8-5 approval from the Pinellas Planning Council, the wind seemed at the developers' backs.

"That killed it, that just absolutely killed it," Richman Group spokesman Robert Pergolizzi snapped after Tuesday's vote. "It's done."

Now the 34-acre site is likely to go back up for sale as industrial land, open to a factory or power plant.

Some Pinellas County commissioners seemed puzzled over why residents said they would prefer an industrial plant to an apartment complex. They warned they wouldn't be sympathetic to those who might protest the landowner's next move.

"If this does come back with an industrial use offer for this particular piece of property, we're going to support it," said Commissioner Karen Seel. "It's going to be the direction you all have given us as residents."

Brittany Alana Davis can be contacted at bdavis@tampabay.com or 850-323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.

CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission dealt a surprising death blow Tuesday to a high-end apartment complex poised for construction in Safety Harbor.

The unanimous decision to deny a rezoning from industrial to residential shocked and invigorated dozens of Safety Harbor residents who protested and petitioned for more than nine months, even as the proposal survived Safety Harbor's City Commission and won approval from various other boards.

Some commissioners said Tuesday their decision was based on concerns the county is gradually losing its industrial property and becoming "a bedroom community" with few jobs.

"We've been chipping away at the industrial in this county over the last three years," said Commissioner John Morroni. "Sometimes it's for really great reasons, sometimes it's not for great reasons."

Commissioners also seemed swayed by residents who spoke en masse at every government meeting and wrote at least 308 letters pleading with county commissioners to block the project.

Opponents of the complex, including Safety Harbor Commissioner Nancy Besore, warned the complex would be out of place in quaint Safety Harbor, would cause unbearable traffic and would decrease property values.

Besore, who was on the losing end of Safety Harbor's 3-2 vote to approve the complex in February, said she was shocked by Tuesday's decision.

"I believed three people on the commission had an interest in keeping it industrial," said Besore, who folded her hands in prayer as it became clear the commission might strike down the proposed complex. "But I wasn't at all confident going into today's meeting."

The Richman Group, the West Palm Beach developers behind the proposal, had planned to build a 246-unit gated complex with a swimming pool and clubhouse at McMullen-Booth Road and State Road 590, site of the defunct Firmenich Citrus Center.

To build apartments on the property, developers needed city and county commissioners to approve a zoning change from industrial to residential. Fresh off their win in Safety Harbor and an 8-5 approval from the Pinellas Planning Council, the wind seemed at the developers' backs.

"That killed it, that just absolutely killed it," Richman Group spokesman Robert Pergolizzi snapped after Tuesday's vote. "It's done."

The 34-acre site is likely to go back up for sale as industrial land, open to a factory or power plant.

Some Pinellas County commissioners seemed puzzled over why residents said they would prefer an industrial plant to an apartment complex. They warned they wouldn't be sympathetic to those who might protest the landowner's next move.

"If this does come back with an industrial use offer for this particular piece of property, we're going to support it," said Commissioner Karen Seel. "It's going to be the direction you all have given us as residents."

Brittany Alana Davis can be contacted at bdavis@tampabay.com or (850) 323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.

County commissioners strike down Safety Harbor apartment plan 05/07/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 6:36pm]
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