When Greystar Development of Charleston, S.C., set out to build a multifamily apartment complex at 11901 10th Way N, it looked like clear sailing through the city of St. Petersburg's development pipeline.
After all, the project, which sits on 3.7 acres at the northwest corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N and 118th Avenue, had already been approved by the city's Development Review Commission in 2008. It calls for 240 apartments in 10 three-story buildings and 10,000 square feet of office space.
Then earlier this month, Greystar, which recently took over the project, sought and received the DRC's approval of two variances that would permit the developer to remove all the trees and encroach further on wetlands at the site.
But, wait, there's a problem: Bald eagles have been sighted on the property.
When the DRC learned of that, it added a special condition of approval. It stipulates that if "an appropriate governmental authority" determines there is an eagle nest there, the developer will have to "establish a bald eagle mitigation plan" under the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The plan requires buffer zones when developing near eagle nests.
But that's not enough for environmentalists from St. Petersburg, Palm Harbor and Clearwater. They contend the variances should not have been approved, and they are providing photographs as well as Pinellas County records that document at least one eagle nest on the property.
Dave Kandz, conservation chair of the St. Petersburg Audubon Society, said his group and the Clearwater Audubon Society have voted to ask the City Council to reverse the DRC ruling on the variances.
"Spending any amount of time on that property, one would have to be aware of the activity of large raptors," said Barbara Walker, a volunteer for Audubon of Florida's Eagle Watch Program.
The multifamily project has been in the works for several years. In 2008, the year of DRC's initial approval, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Southwest Florida Water Management District issued permits for the original site plan.
So how did we get this far along in the process without knowing about eagles on the premises?
Walker said her group was busy fighting the development of a Walmart in Tarpon Springs. Eagles were on that site, too.
Both the developer and city officials acknowledge they first learned of the eagle nest hours before the DRC meeting.
"The bald eagle thing is a shock to us, and quite frankly, I'm embarrassed by it," said Todd Wigfield of Greystar.
Last week, city officials said the burden now lies with the developer.
"The developer will have to confirm that the nest is an eagles' nest," said Philip Lazzara, a zoning official with the city. "If it is determined that it is an eagles' nest, then they (developers) will have to abide by the (state) eagle management plan."
But excuses don't sit well with the environmentalists.
"Since the city or developer was not aware of what was going on environmentally on the property, the proper surveys were not done," said Walker, who coordinates the volunteers who monitor eagle nests in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough. "It was unfair that the public didn't get a chance to weigh in."
"City staff relied on Swiftmud and the Army Corps of Engineers, but those agencies only look at permits on wetlands. They don't look up," said Beth Connor, a St. Petersburg environmental activist. "It begs the question: Why doesn't the city have a checklist and why wasn't a biological study done?"
Walker also is concerned that there is a rush to approve the project. "They missed an eagles' nest, so I'm reluctant to trust any survey they might do on the property going forward," said the Palm Harbor resident.
The project's original developer was Grady Pridgen, but he lost the property in foreclosure. The current owner, Redus FL Land LLC in Jacksonville, a subsidiary of Wachovia Bank, is negotiating with Greystar to develop the property.
The Greystar group, led by Wigfield, wants the modifications to the original agreement and needs city approval before the bank allows the sale to go through.
"When it was permitted, there wasn't a bald eagle," Wigfield said. "So we're operating under the assumption that we're sticking within a footprint that has already been approved.
"We're not adversely affecting what has already been approved," he said.
But the environmentalists say the eagles' nest was documented in 2008, 2009 and 2010 by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Pinellas County and is listed on documents in the county Property Appraiser's Office.
"It pains me because these guys (city officials) are professionals, and they're supposed to protect us as taxpayers and residents who love this city," said Connor.
It seems to me there are other questions to answer here.
Does the city need yet another multifamily housing complex along a corridor that's already known as Apartment Row?
And what's wrong with leaving this tiny pocket of land, which much of the time is under water, as a wildlife refuge or a place where people can go for outdoor recreation?
Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8874.