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Developer, legislator hope to skip rules

The developer of one of Pinellas County's last large pieces of vacant land wants to build so many condominiums that the law requires state and local approval.

It's a long and expensive process. But Grady Pridgen wants to do an end run around the rules, and he has a state legislator helping him.

Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, is sponsoring a bill that would allow Pridgen to ignore rules other developers must follow. Farkas has the majority support of the Pinellas legislative delegation.

Local governments are outraged.

"The development process has been in place for more than 30 years," said Brian Smith, the county's planning director. "You can't just let the Legislature step in and tell local governments what to do."

Pridgen said he just wants to make sure that bureaucratic red tape doesn't kill his project, which includes affordable housing for several large companies.

"The regulations have gotten so intense, so time-consuming and so costly that it would be impossible to complete enough housing annually to meet the demand," Pridgen said.

Now lawmakers must decide which is worse: jeopardizing the millions of dollars in tax revenue Pridgen's project may bring or allowing a developer to subvert the role of local government.

Said St. Petersburg City Council member James Bennett: "This would be precedent-setting, that's for sure."

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Pridgen bought the property known as the sod farm in 2002 from the city of St. Petersburg for $4.9-million.

He bought another strip of land there from a private owner, bringing the total acreage of the site to 133.

The development, called La Entrada, is bounded by 28th Street N and Interstate 275 and 94th and 104th avenues.

The project was controversial from the start. The county initially balked at Pridgen's proposal to build homes on industrial land less than 1,000 feet from the county's landfill but eventually agreed to the plan.

The county has been less amenable to Pridgen's plan to build nearly 3,000 condominiums on the site - more than 75 units per acre - in an area where 30 condos per acre is the norm. Pridgen said he is still discussing the issue with the county.

Two companies building there are expected to bring more than 1,000 jobs: Cox Target Media, parent of ValPak; and Halkey-Roberts Inc., which makes valves used in medical equipment.

Plans include 300 hotel rooms, 5.9-million square feet of office space, 1.3-million feet of retail space and 700,000 square feet of light industrial and manufacturing.

Pridgen envisions a development where residents can work and play, park their cars and use walkways or a trolley he hopes to locate there. He also is incorporating various environmentally friendly building methods.

It will take 15 to 20 years to complete La Entrada, at which time it will be worth $1.5-billion, and possibly have 35,000 jobs there, Pridgen said.

One of the biggest hurdles: traffic requirements.

Under Florida law, developers must make allowances for the increased number of cars a project will bring. This includes a traffic study, which costs around $100,000, plus any road improvements the Department of Transportation deems necessary.

Pridgen said the traffic laws are so strict, it's nearly impossible for a developer to meet the demands.

"You can't spend enough money to meet some of the limits the DOT requires," he said.

Farkas' bill would exempt Pridgen's project from the state's traffic requirements, which could save him millions of dollars. He said the exemption makes sense because his project would encourage people to live and work within the development, which would not overload surrounding roads.

But Smith, the county planning director, said the situation is more complicated. The roads surrounding La Entrada are among the most heavily traveled in the county. Any potential changes need scrutiny.

"If we're not careful, it will become a bottleneck for the whole county," Smith said. "Everyone has to go through that area to get where you want to go - north, south, east or west."

Smith said the bill that would exempt Pridgen also would allow him to increase the number of condominiums without going through the local review process. It could also remove county and state oversight of the impact on other services, including utilities, the school system, the Sheriff's Office and others, he said.

Tom Shevlin, Pinellas Park's assistant city manager, said it isn't fair to the people who already live in the area.

"We don't know how this is going to affect those people," Shevlin said. "Until they can respond to that, we're not going to support the bill."

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Farkas said Pridgen approached him in November with his proposal and made a convincing argument.

"He's got a top-notch project that will be a model for the state," Farkas said. "All this does is allow him to proceed without the Department of Transportation signing off on the plans."

Farkas withdrew the bill in December after local governments protested. But he added some clarifying language and is circulating a new draft, which he hasn't yet filed.

The county's legislative delegation voted to approve the bill.

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, said he has worked with Pridgen and trusts him.

"Obviously, Grady's very good with bringing jobs to the area," he said. "He's very innovative, always looking outside the box."

Pridgen is scheduled to meet today with Gov. Jeb Bush. The 30-minute meeting is to discuss environmentally friendly development around the state, although the proposed bill may come up, said Honey Rand, Pridgen's spokeswoman.

The St. Petersburg City Council and Mayor Rick Baker opted to take no position.

"I don't think I want to shake hands with the county on this one," said council member John Bryan. "My reaction is to sit back and see what happens."

Pridgen estimates the project will generate millions of dollars in taxes, which would largely benefit the city.

Pridgen said he's surprised by the outcry. He said La Entrada will not only bring jobs, but affordable housing, which is in short supply in the county.

He plans to proceed with his project, with or without the bill.

"We'll still move forward," Pridgen said. "But there will be a big cloud over our heads."

Times staff writer Sharon L. Bond contributed to this report. Carrie Weimar can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or cjohnson@sppimes.com.

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