SAFETY HARBOR — After Safety Harbor residents rallied and protested for six months, city commissioners Monday voted to take in what opponents consider a terrible intruder: a high-end apartment complex.
Commissioners voted 3-2 to approve construction of a 246-unit, three-story luxury complex on State Road 590 east of McMullen-Booth Road, home of the now defunct Firmenich Citrus Plant.
The apartments, with nine-foot ceilings, granite countertops, tennis courts, a pool and a billiard room, are expected to rent for $1,000 per month for a one-bedroom.
But promises of quality maintenance and an influx of high-end shoppers for Safety Harbor's downtown did little to quell outrage over the proposed complex, which prompted street protests, petitions and a seemingly endless list of complaints.
On Monday more than 30 people lined up to speak at the City Commission meeting, threatening to vote officials out of office and attacking the proposal from every angle.
Among other complaints, they said the complex will increase traffic. Harm the environment. Sink property values. Bring in too many people. Attract a criminal element. Be too much for the schools to handle. Be too tall. Too ugly. Too isolated. Too close to downtown. Too tacky, yet too generic.
"I feel like this is our last stand, so I must speak out," said Barbara Hugg, drawing cheers from a crowd of at least 100. "Nothing would help alleviate the nightmare. We are the David to their Goliath."
At times, new Mayor Joe Ayoub had trouble controlling the room, with residents ignoring his pleas for respect to each speaker. Rather, the audience booed and jeered at the developers and the few locals who favored the proposal.
Even Ayoub, after he cast the tie-breaking vote, faced cries of "This is going to be a one-term mayor!" "Vote him out!" and, "You can't fight traffic with granite countertops!"
Ayoub later said he voted his conscience and believes the city will benefit from having apartments rather than an industrial plant at the site.
"I want to sleep at night knowing I've made the best decision I can for the long-term interests of the city," Ayoub said, when asked about hostile comments from residents. "The voters will have an opportunity to decide when I'm up for election."
City officials clearly felt pressure from residents as the three-hour discussion came to a close, with some near apologizing as they explained their stances.
Ayoub, Commissioner Nina Bandoni and Commissioner Richard Blake approved the proposal, while Commissioner Nancy Besore and Vice Mayor Cliff Merz voted against it.
Bandoni explained that no matter how commissioners feel about the project, they must follow the law.
When someone's financial gain or loss is at stake (in this case the developer's), commissioners must act based on hard evidence about things like traffic and property values. The decision cannot be based on the project's popularity.
The Richman Group, the West Palm Beach developers behind the project, hired a traffic engineer and real estate appraiser who said the traffic would be minimal and the property values might even go up. Critics questioned the independence of the studies, but didn't provide expert analyses of their own.
Developers revised the project several times at the request of city officials, decreasing the proposed units, eliminating a retail center, stretching the buffer between the complex and surrounding properties, and redrawing the plans to give the buildings front porches and an "old Florida" feel.
Normally, such a project would be approved administratively. But developers went before the commission because they needed a zoning change.
Todd Fabbri, executive vice president of the Richman Group, said he believes the commission made a good decision, and he hopes residents will soften their views once the complex is built.
"We've been in positions like this before," he said. "But usually, after a time, people realize this is an asset to the community."
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