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Q&A

Still confused about what exactly is coming before the County Commission on Tuesday? Here are some basic questions and answers about the Halls River Retreat proposal.

Q: Is this an application to change the zoning?

A: No. The property is zoned for "mixed use," a broad category that allows everything from barbershops and dry cleaners to single-family homes or apartments. The mixed use designation allows up to 20 residential units per acre. Clearwater developer F. Blake Longacre proposes to build 63 condominiums and a manager's apartment on the 11-acre site, which comes out to 5.8 residential units per acre, well within the density allowed.

Q: Why does Longacre need County Commission approval?

A: Longacre's project does not meet several aspects of the county's Land Development Code, so he needs exemptions from those building regulations. Developers outline their requests in a "Planned Development Overlay," a detailed site plan that shows exactly how the project will be built and why the exemptions to county code are needed.

The county's Planning and Development Review Board usually casts the final vote on Planned Development Overlay requests. But the Comprehensive Plan requires that projects in the environmentally sensitive lands west of U.S. 19, such as Halls River Retreat, receive extra scrutiny by coming before the County Commission for approval.

Q: In what ways does Longacre's project not meet county code?

A: The code requires buildings to be at least 50 feet from wetlands and water bodies, or 35 feet if berms or swales are in place. The cluster of proposed condominiums on the south side of the Halls River Retreat property directly abuts hardwood wetlands. Condos in the northwest corner are less than 35 feet from wetlands, as are four gazebos scattered along walkways on the east side of the property.

Approving the project would mean exempting those buildings from the wetlands setback requirements.

The county code also limits the number of boat slips in an essential manatee habitat, such as the Halls River, to one per 100 feet of shoreline. With 1,860 feet of shoreline, Halls River Retreat would be entitled to 18 or 19 boat slips. Longacre has requested 20.

Q: Are four-story buildings allowed on that site?

A: Yes. The county code limits building height based on its distance from the property line. A building at least five feet from the property line can be up to 50 feet tall, the same height as the four-story buildings proposed at Halls River Retreat.

County code allows builders to go even higher than 50 feet: For every two feet the building is brought farther inland from the property line, the builder can add 10 feet to its height.

Q: What about the wetlands?

A: The county's Comprehensive Plan prohibits the "dredging and filling of wetlands or open water to accommodate water-related and nonwater-related uses." Longacre's plans call for filling about 0.22 of an acre of wetlands to accommodate three condo buildings, as well as excavation and partial filling of the canal where boat slips will be added.

Some of the wetlands on the proposed Halls River Retreat site feed directly into the Halls River, an Outstanding Florida Waterway protected by state law. No activity is allowed that lowers the water quality of an outstanding waterway. If a developer wants to fill wetlands or expand a canal along an outstanding waterway, he must show that it is "clearly in the public interest."

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, has granted an environmental resource permit allowing Longacre to fill about 0.22 acres of wetlands in exchange for on-site mitigation, including the creation of about 0.2 acres of wetlands that will connect existing inland wetlands to the river.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also granted a permit for the project, allowing excavation and partial filling of the existing canal to create 20 boat slips.

Both agencies are charged with determining whether certain technical aspects of the project meet state or federal law, not whether the project as a whole is sound or fitting.

That judgment call rests with the County Commission.

_ BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

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