(ran SS edition of Metro & State)
For months, the owners of 95 acres of pristine gulf-front land have given Pinellas County officials a choice: buy the land or watch it developed with hundreds of homes.
But faced with the likely rejection of its rezoning plan by the Pinellas County Commission, the McMullen family has withdrawn its rezoning application for the tract. That decision will allow negotiations with the county to continue free from the immediate threat of development.
"We're just letting discussions with the county mature to see if we're able to reach an agreeable transaction for both sides," said attorney Tim Johnson, who represents the McMullens and the Orlando-based Gulf One Property Trust, which signed a contract to buy the property in hopes of developing it. "To paraphrase, we thought we'd give peace a chance."
The withdrawal of the application is viewed as a partial victory by a group of residents who have fought the development of north Pinellas' largest piece of undeveloped gulf-front land. More than 250 people who wrote letters in opposition to the development plan. About 2,000 others signed a petition in opposition.
Jerry Miller, 53, a Baywood Village resident who leads a group known as Citizens Against Rezoning, was pleased, if cautious, about the news.
His organization's stated goal has been to defeat the rezoning and have the property purchased by the county for park land. Their goals are only half-achieved, he said.
"We're still hopeful (the county purchase) will come to pass," Miller said. "I think progress is being made.
"It's good news the rezoning application is no longer on the table," he said. "But we don't know what the next step is going to be. There's always the possibility the rezoning application could be filed again next month."
If it is, it likely would have to be revised to have a chance of approval.
Last month, the county's zoning staff recommended denial of the plan to put 231 homes on the 94.75 acres, which is mostly owned by the McMullen family. The development would threaten sensitive environmental land and put too much extra traffic on an already congested stretch of Alt. U.S. 19, officials concluded. The withdrawal of the application came before Tuesday, when the County Commission was scheduled to consider it.
Facing the prospect of a similar recommendation for denial last month, the McMullens reduced the number of homes proposed for the property from 330 to 231.
Johnson said the plan could have been revised again, but the owners opted to focus instead on negotiations with the county.
The county hopes to buy the land as an extension to the recently opened Wall Springs Park.
"It is fair to say both sides are hopeful it works out," Johnson said. However, he warned, "sometimes that results in an agreement, and sometimes it doesn't."
County real estate manager Ellyn Kadel declined to discuss the negotiations.
"We're still pursuing it," Kadel said.
Kadel said this week's decision to pay $5.3-million to buy 190 acres in northern East Lake for the Brooker Creek Preserve would not affect the county's ability to purchase the McMullen property, as some residents have feared.
The county has obtained two appraisals for the McMullen property, one for the entire property and another for just part of it. Johnson said the "primary thrust" of the current negotiations is for the county to purchase the entire property.
The county's report on the property notes that it contains sensitive uplands and mangrove wetlands. Its coastal sand ridge has the only remaining high-quality sand hill and scrub plant community left in Pinellas County. Sherman's fox squirrel and gopher tortoises, both threatened species, thrive on the site. Shorebirds nest there.
Miller said he hopes the withdrawal will now give the McMullens and county officials time to "do some deep thinking, sit down and get this over with."
_ Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farleysptimes.com.