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A Times Editorial

Public shut out again

Surprise! The Pinellas County Commission voted last week to sell the 240-acre Toytown landfill for $10 to a private developer planning a mixed-use project described as "breathtaking" in scope and complexity by a county official. If you are a resident who would have liked to weigh in on that sales agreement, too bad. The public wasn't invited to comment before the unanimous vote.

One would think these county commissioners, burned badly by their quick, quiet and ill-advised purchase of county Property Appraiser Jim Smith's private land last year, would ensure that future property transactions got extensive public discussion and residents' input. But last week, there they went again, voting on a thick sales agreement available in final form only days before the meeting and doing so without benefit of a work session or public input.

There shouldn't have been any need for speed. In March 2007, Pinellas County put out feelers to see if anyone wanted to build on the grass-covered mountain of garbage known as Toytown alongside Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg. Four developers responded, and in January the commissioners chose to negotiate with Industrial Realty Group of California/Bear Creek Capital of Ohio, a team now called Florida Gateway Development I LLC. Gateway and a team of four county employees finished their negotiations on a purchase agreement three weeks before the county's July 21 deadline.

The purchase agreement gives Gateway a year to determine whether the landfill can be built on. If it can, Gateway will have up to three more years to obtain government approvals. The sale of the land will be completed at the end of that period.

Some may be shocked that the county would sell 240 acres for a paltry 10 bucks, but financially, this deal works for the county. The monitoring responsibility and legal liability for the enormous landfill, which now costs the county about $750,000 a year, would transfer to the new and all future owners. The developer also must build and maintain 70 acres of public recreation and community space, including much-needed ballfields.

The county is salivating over the potential boost to the tax base and the new jobs that would be created if the project develops as envisioned: 2-million square feet of offices; 1.5-million square feet of retail; 375 hotel rooms, with 50,000 square feet of convention space; and 2,113 residential units, including affordable housing. The plans do not include a baseball stadium for the Rays, but the agreement does not preclude one, either.

In their hurry to ink the agreement, commissioners failed to thoroughly examine, for their own benefit and the public's, several important matters. For example, commissioners gave no indication they had researched whether IRG or Bear Creek has a record of successfully building safe residential units on garbage dumps comparable to Toytown. Did they consider whether public safety could be compromised by handing off all landfill oversight to private parties in perpetuity?

Gateway Development's proposed project, valued at more than $1-billion, could one day be a big shot in the arm for the Pinellas economy. But when a project has such economic, environmental and social impact, county and other government officials need to demonstrate that they are on top of the details and eager to hear the public's concerns at every stage.

Public shut out again 07/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2008 4:10pm]
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