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Lowe's store will be welcome neighbor

(ran West and Seminole editions)

You might think the residents whose mobile homes sit in the shadow of a vacant supermarket would be the first to oppose a plan to construct a mammoth home improvement store in its place.

No question, there would be more noise. And it certainly won't make it any easier for those mostly elderly residents to pull on to busy Ulmerton Road.

But at a Largo City Commission meeting last week, there was the president of the homeowners association for the Regal mobile home park lending his support to the project.

The proposed construction of a Lowe's Home Improvement Store will improve the safety, appearance and retail value of the neighborhood, said Don Perkins.

In the five years since the close of the Kash n' Karry store that used to anchor the shopping center at the corner of Ulmerton Road and 113th Street, also known as Ridge Road, the property has become a haven for vagrants, he said. Trucks park there at night, causing a ruckus. And monstrous weeds have been allowed to grow wildly.

The vagrants are the biggest problem, Perkins said. Residents are convinced they are responsible for a string of burglaries over the years in their mobile home park.

"In the 11 years I've been in there, I know of three home invasions in this park," Perkins said. "That is scary."

So Perkins said he's all for Lowe's knocking down the vacant supermarket, as well as several small businesses next to it, including a day labor business that be believes has contributed to the vagrancy problem.

"It's the only way to get that property back on the tax rolls and save it commercially," he said.

Lowe's is under contract to buy not just the 8-acre shopping center property, but also the 8.6 acres of mostly wooded land to the east. The plan is to construct a 169,000-square-foot building, roughly the size of three football fields.

Largo officials hailed the plan as a great alternative to what had become a community eyesore.

"I think it's going to be a nice development and a nice addition to the economy here," said Ric Goss, the city's community development director.

The project will need to survive a lengthy review process, however, because the development would disturb about 6 acres of wetlands in the wooded property to the east. In exchange for building on the protected wetlands, said Lowe's attorney Tim Johnson, the company will buy or preserve wetlands in another location, likely outside of Pinellas County.

That's okay with Largo officials, Goss said, because the wetlands there are "degraded and isolated" and the water quality is bad due to urban runoff.

Actual construction of the store likely won't start for about a year, Johnson said.

Johnson, who would not disclose the purchase price of the properties, said he has been pleasantly surprised by the support the project has received from neighbors.

"I think there are special circumstances here," Johnson said. "Neighbors have been bothered by the activities of itinerant folks living in the woods."

There also were numerous complaints about raccoons, Johnson said, which the company has agreed to trap and relocate.

Neighbors also have complained about the parking lot becoming a popular spot for truckers to stop and spend the night.

Lowe's officials also have agreed to construct a masonry fence to replace a wooden one between the back of the new store and the mobile homes to the north. The store will sit farther back than the old supermarket, and trees will be planted as a buffer for the northern neighbors.

The demolition of the existing buildings also will mean that the pizza shop and sports pub, the day labor business, a coin laundry and the Higher Ground Church will have to relocate. A medical building closer to Ulmerton Road also will be demolished, Johnson said.

But the neurological surgery center in the southwest corner of the property will remain.

The Lowe's plan will come back before the Largo commission on Nov. 20.