Applause greeted a de facto decision by the Development Review Commission on Wednesday to keep a pedestrian easement at the rear of the Masonic Home in the Northeast Park neighborhood open to the public.
"I have not seen enough evidence to prove to me that use of this easement by the residents is harming the Masonic Home," said Sharon Heal-Eichler, a member of the Development Review Commission.
She joined Ann Vickstrom and Charles Canerday in a 3-3 split decision that, under DRC rules, resulted in a denial of the Masonic Home's request that the city give up a 10-foot-wide public easement established in 1976 near Coffee Pot Bayou.
The easement was never improved with paving or lighting, but has been used by area residents for walking, bicycling and to reach a nearby city park.
In May, representatives of the Masonic Home asked the city to give them back the easement in exchange for giving the city yet another easement along the western portion of the Masonic Home property.
That new easement has since been dedicated to the city and will become part of the city's North Bay Trail system now under construction. The trail will become part of the City Trails Bike Route System and connect to the Pinellas Trail.
Masonic Home spokesperson Stephen Gladstone stressed that the 1976 easement is on property that belongs to the home, not to the city. He said the home wants to control access to its property for the safety of its residents.
A dozen neighborhood residents spoke at the DRC meeting, pleading for the city to keep the easement open to the public.
"If you close this easement, you are taking away a lot of our lifestyle. There is no replacement for this," said resident Paul Traxler.
Ann Lynch has lived a block away from the easement since 1973. Now she has five children and is determined that it remain open.
"We had to go to City Council to fight for the gates to be reopened after they were locked to residents," she said.
Resident Paul Gerle acknowledged "there is indeed trespassing and littering occurring" on the easement and offered to work with the Masonic Home to resolve any conflicts with residents.
Heal-Eichler urged residents to "protect their rights" to use the easement by picking up after their dogs and themselves when crossing the Masonic Home property.
"If you abuse the right, of course the Masonic Home has more of a reason to have this vacated," she said.
Gladstone said the Masonic Home has no desire for a "mud slinging contest" with residents and pledged the home would continue to allow its facilities to be used for school graduations, as a hurricane shelter and be available for neighborhood civic association meetings.
In other cases, the DRC took the following actions:
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Lynch Elementary site plan approved
A site plan for construction of a new 79,512-square-foot school to replace the existing Lynch Elementary School at 1901 70th Ave. N was unanimously approved. The plan calls for the existing pre-K and two-story classroom buildings and a covered play court to remain. The remaining buildings will be torn down, and students will be housed in portable classrooms on the west side of the 15-acre campus during the 2010-2011 school year. Construction of the new $17 million school is expected to be completed by next summer.
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Store's site plan modification approved
A site plan modification of a previously approved special exception to allow expansion of an existing convenience store at 900 34th St. N was unanimously approved. The property owner plans to build a 906-square-foot addition to the 1955-era building.