James McNally and his wife, Lauren, looked all over Pinellas County for the perfect townhome in 2002 and hit pay dirt when they landed in Largo's Willow Greens community just off Starkey Road.
The four-bedroom, 21/2-bath home had more than enough space and they looked forward to being able to enjoy the screened-in porch.
But in 2004, the patio furniture began to get covered in a black dust. Early in the mornings, the beeping sounds of trucks backing up and the rumble of their engines began to stir the McNallys from sleep. And then came what residents say was a horrid smell, like burning rubber.
The McNallys' back yard abutted a defunct asphalt plant. But unbeknownst to them and many of their neighbors, the plant had been sold and its new owner was ramping up business again.
"I would have never bought the place if I knew the plant was reopening," said McNally, 65. "It was a big shock and I think I cried for almost a week when I heard. I can't even keep my window open and once a week I have to hose off the patio."
About 2,000 Largo residential homes that surround R.E. Purcell Construction Co. at 1550 Starkey Road are surprised that the company is back in operation and have launched an attempt to prevent Pinellas County from changing the land-use designation for 9.9 acres of the 13-acre site to general from light industrial, which would allow a heavier industrial use.
Tuesday, the County Commission will consider the change, which could allow businesses such as asphalt and concrete plants, and the processing of fiberglass products.
Brian Smith, the county's planning director, said the requested change is an attempt to make the current use of the land and the comprehensive plan consistent.
"We are trying to recognize the industry that's there and basically bring under control any concerns people have had," Smith said. "It is an active, going-on concern, but we want to make sure it's done to minimize impact."
Smith points to a development agreement that's attached to the use change that limits other uses on the property. But residents of Willow Greens townhomes, Seminole Palms and Country Club Condominiums say that the agreement expires in five years and allows the use of fiberglass, an added health risk.
The asphalt company, which is in unincorporated Pinellas County, is surrounded by the city of Largo.
Largo Mayor Pat Gerard sent a letter to the County Commission last week saying the city does not support the proposed change. She said the "designation is incompatible with the surrounding residential land uses."
The plant has been at the location since the 1950s. Before Raymond Purcell bought the business, it was called Overstreet Paving. It shut down in 1999.
Raymond Purcell could not be reached for comment, but before the county's Planning and Zoning Examiner meeting in July, he said Overstreet Paving came on financial hardship and the plant shut down before the bank repossessed it. That's when he bought it. Purcell said the plant sat idle for months, but the permits were valid.
Because the county changed the land-use designation to light industrial in its comprehensive plan in 1974, Purcell should have never been allowed to restart the asphalt company, opponents say.
"It shouldn't have reopened," said Gregory Clark, an attorney representing two residents opposed to the change. "In 1974, the adopted land-use plan was to keep the area with a clean use and it (asphalt plant) was grandfathered in as a nonconforming use. If you stop and cease operation, the plant becomes obsolete."
An asphalt plant is not allowed under the light industrial use.
There are piles of tires, dirt and gravel on the site. Huge trucks come in and out all day. The work day starts at 4 a.m. at the site, said Satendra P. Singh, a Country Club Condominiums resident.
Christopher Crisci, a Willow Greens resident, said washing his car is futile. He can't sit on his porch and the black dust settles in his home where he has a 17-month-old toddler. He's concerned about the air quality, though the county has deemed it acceptable.
"They (R.E. Purcell) are going to keep going and keep going and no one is going to stop them," Crisci said. "Only bad things can happen if they grow."
Crisci moved to Willow Greens, which consists of 30 units, in 1999. The plant was closed at that time.
"I would have never, ever bought my townhome where I live," Crisci said. "That's a fact. They couldn't have given that place to me for free if I knew."