The Pinellas County Commission is not known for being particularly sensitive to the complaints of neighborhoods. Residents of Old Keystone Road who don't want a ballfield complex across the street could testify to that. So could people who live near the Bayside Bridge, where a dense residential development called Bayside Reserves just got a green light over the neighborhood's objections.
But even county commissioners seemed able to put themselves in the shoes of some midcounty residents who feared expansion of a neighboring asphalt plant if a land use change sought by the R.E. Purcell Construction Co. were approved. At their Oct. 21 meeting, commissioners voted down the change, even though their own staff recommended it and Purcell's attorney claimed that the asphalt plant is a "critical county resource."
The question is, was the decision fair?
An asphalt plant has operated at 1550 Starkey Road since the 1950s. At that time, the asphalt plant and a nearby junk yard were about the only development in the area. Over the next two decades, other kinds of industrial uses located nearby: a concrete plant, a recycling center, and numerous light industrial businesses such as distribution centers.
It wasn't until years later that homes appeared — first a large mobile home park, then townhouses, and eventually even a country club and golf course immediately west of the asphalt plant. Now an aerial photo shows major residential development to the east, north and west of the plant.
It is no surprise that residents complained about thick dust, heavy odors and loud trucks. In 1999 the plant closed, and some of those who moved into nearby homes during that period may have believed the plant was closed permanently. But it reopened a few years later when Purcell bought the business, and residents' complaints of nauseating smells and respiratory problems ballooned.
An asphalt plant is no longer allowed on Pinellas property with a land use designation of Industrial Limited. It is too intensive a use. But because the plant had existed since the 1950s, it was grandfathered in when the Industrial Limited category was created, and it is a legal, non-conforming use of the property. Purcell sought a redesignation to Industrial General, under which intensive uses like an asphalt plant are allowed, because if his plant were destroyed in a disaster, it could not be rebuilt there.
Residents had hoped that one day the asphalt plant would go away. They didn't want the land use changed to allow the plant to exist in perpetuity. The business, however, was there first. It was the city of Largo that permitted construction of neighborhoods in what clearly had become an industrial area.
When the issue came to a vote, two commissioners, Susan Latvala and Ronnie Duncan, supported the land use change that would permit an asphalt plant to continue to exist there.
But the other four commissioners present voted with the residents. The plant can continue to operate as is, but if it is ever destroyed, it cannot be rebuilt.
It isn't just Largo that has signed off on developments that were bound to create conflicts. The Pinellas County Commission has as well. La Entrada, a residential development approved near a county landfill, is a good example.
Proper land use planning creates intermediate uses between two substantially different land uses in order to lessen such conflicts. It doesn't put homes beside asphalt plants. But such planning only works if government officials have the backbone to say no to would-be developers of clearly incompatible projects.