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City is right to be wary of builder's request for delay

It may seem that the dark clouds hovering over the U.S. economy never will clear, but one day the clouds will part and the future will begin to look sunny again.

When that day comes — some experts predict in late 2009, others in 2010 — why would Safety Harbor want the city's premier development site to be locked up in a legal agreement based on 2008's doom and gloom?

Safety Harbor should take a cue from Dunedin and find ways to encourage construction of projects to be completed promptly.

Olympia Development has an approved site plan that called for a retail/office building at the corner of Bayshore Boulevard and Main Street, plus a luxury residential development called Harbour Pointe Village on Bayshore south of Main. The entire project was to be built in a single push. The city's rules at that time required only that the developer begin construction within one year of getting a building permit, and Olympia satisfied that requirement by building the retail/office portion of its project. There was no limit then on how long they could take to complete the rest of the project.

However, earlier this year the city approved a new rule that requires single-phase projects to be under continuous construction until completed.

Now, because of economic conditions, Olympia wants to amend its site plan and break its residential village project into three phases. Olympia wants to be given five years to start construction of the first phase, and 21 years to complete all three.

The site plan amendments the developer is requesting also would reduce the number of townhomes on the north end of the project, build the condominium phase on a smaller footprint, and reposition the buildings in the townhome section on the south end. The Planning and Zoning Board will consider the new site plan request at 7 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.

City officials seem pleased with the changes in units and building configurations, which help reduce the impact of the development. But they aren't so sure about allowing construction to be spread out over 21 years.

"Too many things can happen. There are just too many variables and circumstances that can change," said Mayor Andy Steingold.

Olympia's land may be the most visible in the community. The entire project is key to promoting development downtown. City officials are right to be wary of signing off on a new site plan that gives the developer more than two decades to finish.

Other cities also are dealing with requests from developers for long delays in starting or completing projects. This summer Dunedin officials decided it was a bad idea to allow developers to delay indefinitely after getting an approved site plan. Dunedin commissioners decided that in the future, approved site plans will expire in two years if construction has not begun. Several developers who already had approved site plans with no expiration date were given an extra three years.

There was substantial debate over even that five-year delay. Dunedin officials know that much can change in a community in five years. Imagine what could change in 21 years — a community's development goals, needs, population, traffic patterns, residential base and more. And what does a request for 21 years say about a developer's financial position?

This is a tough economy, and there is nothing wrong with working with developers to help them through the current crisis. But for elected officials, the goal must be to do what is best for the community over the long term. Tying desirable, developable property to an approved site plan that can languish for so long does not serve the community's best interests.

City is right to be wary of builder's request for delay 09/08/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 4:23pm]
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