Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Public safety

Tarpon Springs commission votes to buy troubled Sunbay Motel

TARPON SPRINGS — A contentious debate over the fate of a troubled motel is poised to end after commissioners voted Tuesday to buy the property.

After about two hours of resident feedback and discussion, the commission voted 3-2 to buy the Sunbay Motel at 57 W Tarpon Ave. for $862,000, including attorney’s fees. The motel owner still has to approve the counteroffer, which is about $90,000 less than his proposal of $895,000 plus $55,000 in attorney’s fees.

Mayor Chris Alahouzos, largely seen as the swing vote, floated the idea, and commissioners David Banther and Jacob Karr — staunch supporters of buying the motel — quickly backed him.

"We should pay a fair value" Alahouzos said. "This will be the final offer. It’s take it or leave it."

Despite immense pressure from residents who said a vote against the purchase is a vote in favor of crime, commissioners Rea Sieber and Susan Miccio-Kikta stuck to their long-held opinions that the purchase is not a responsible use of taxpayer dollars and would reward someone whom they characterized as a bad business owner.

"How much are we willing to spend?" Sieber said. "Is that what our job is — to buy every blighted property in Tarpon Springs?"

Motel owner Peter Fanoudis has seven days to accept the offer, which has dwindled from his initial ask of about $1.5 million over months of negotiations with the city. He and his attorney, Anthony Policastro, could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning. If the owner doesn’t accept, Alahouzos said the city will continue aggressive code and police enforcement efforts.

Alahouzos said he came up with the final offer because it’s 125 percent of the city-ordered appraisal of $690,000 for the land and business. The city has in the past bought property within that threshold, he said, although he couldn’t provide any specific examples when asked.

The 12-room Sunbay Motel, along with the Tarpon Inn across the street and the nearby Eureka Apartments, have long been labeled nuisance properties by residents and city officials. Upping the stakes is that all three properties are near the city’s prized Spring Bayou.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tarpon Springs police, city leaders and residents partner to stop crime at two motels near Spring Bayou.

The slaying of police Officer Charles Kondek in December 2014 at Eureka and a fatal shoot-out in August 2016 at Sunbay launched discussions for a solution into overdrive.

City officials first considered taking the 0.18-acre property by eminent domain, or a government’s right to seize private property for public use, and turning it into a park. Then, the city and Fanoudis entered into a mediation process to negotiate a purchase price from the vast difference in what each party thought the property was worth.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tarpon Springs hopes mediation can solve impasse over motel purchase.

About 15 residents who live or own businesses near Sunbay painted a bleak picture of their city as a magnet for drugs and prostitution where needles litter the streets and children are at risk of being pulled into the criminal fray. Annie Samarkos, a fourth-generation Tarpon resident, walked around the commission chambers holding a sign: "DON’T FORGET CHARLIE K RIP Dec. 21, 2014."

"Sunbay is cancer. And cancers don’t sit still," Dr. Paul Robinson told commissioners. "They grow, or they metastasize. And when they metastasize, nowhere in the body is safe, and by analogy, no place in the city is safe. What if the next metastasis is the junior high school?"

A smaller group of residents took issue with the characterization, pointing to a December presentation by police that showed criminal activity was not as dramatic last year as portrayed amid ramped-up enforcement and surveillance. Plus, as Sieber and Miccio-Kikta pointed out, there are crime hotspots in other parts of the city.

"To come up here and wave a figurative bloody shirt and say that anybody up here who does not vote a certain way is responsible for the crime that takes place?" said resident Marty Peters, 71. "That’s a lot of bull."

Even more, they took issue with the perception the city is rewarding the motel owner and the high price. The plan is to pay $500,000 for the purchase from the Community Redevelopment Area fund, which is devoted to revitalizing the district along Pinellas Avenue from Meres Boulevard to the Anclote River. The rest will come as loan from the water and sewer fund that will be paid back over several years.

When it comes to the future of the land, the city doesn’t have a plan yet. A memo to City Manager Mark LeCouris from economic development manager Karen Lemmons outlined some possibilities, contingent on if the city can acquire an adjacent 0.63-acre property owned by a local architect.

They included a 44-room boutique hotel and a three-story mixed-use development made up of apartments, office space and a cafe.

"This is the first domino to fall," Commissioner Jacob Karr said, "to help redevelop the west end of Tarpon Avenue."

Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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