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Clearwater advances plan to build on city golf course

In a 3-2 vote, council members eager for new jobs in the city outnumbered those who worried about the project’s environmental impacts. Voters would have the final say.

CLEARWATER — The city will begin negotiations with a developer seeking to turn most of The Landings Golf Club’s 77 acres into a light manufacturing complex, a lease of city-owned land that will require voter approval.

The City Council voted 3-2 on Thursday to direct staff to prepare an agreement with the developer, Harrod Properties, and to draft referendum language for November’s ballot. The council is expected to vote on the term sheet and referendum language next month, steps required before the deal goes to voters.

By supporting the negotiations to move forward, Mayor Frank Hibbard and council members David Allbritton and Hoyt Hamilton praised the high-paying jobs and economic stimulus the proposed 750,000-square foot industrial park could bring. Council members Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker, who voted no, raised concerns about the environmental issues of paving over more green space as well as impacts on surrounding residents.

The dialogue highlighted differences voiced during this year’s campaign season that brought Beckman, Bunker and Hibbard to the dais with their varied priorities.

Beckman, who was endorsed in her race by the Sierra Club for her environmental focus, questioned whether the project fit into the city’s now eight-year-old Greenprint sustainability plan.

She questioned data provided by city staff showing that by removing the Landings as recreation space, the city would still boast 14.2 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, above the city standard of 4 acres per 1,000 residents. The contrast sounds comforting, but what would 4 acres per 1,000 residents look like, Beckman asked.

“I want higher paying jobs in Clearwater and these are a step above a service worker job,” Beckman said. “I am not anti-building, I’m not anti-light industrial or any of that. What I do question is, is this the right spot for it? I have concerns about the impact on our environment.”

Hibbard, who was elected in March after serving as mayor from 2005 to 2012, defended his environmental record while supporting this industrial project. He noted the city’s past efforts under his tenure that converted Glen Oaks Golf Course into Glen Oaks Park to improve the quality of stormwater flowing into Stevenson Creek. He was also mayor when the city finished converting a flood-prone mobile home park into the 37-acre Kapok Park nature preserve.

Analysis conducted by city staff estimates Harrod Properties’ complex could generate 3,783 direct and spinoff jobs at average salaries of $47,076 and create $11 million in net benefits over 10 years. Currently the golf course’s operator pays the city $1,000 a month in rent.

"When I ran I promised to work to create jobs and diversify our economy away from lower paying jobs and hospitality jobs that can be fickle,” Hibbard said. “These commercial properties and industrial properties, they help pay for libraries, recreation centers, and, oh by the way, parks.”

Harrod Properties’ vision entails building a multi-structure, $131 million complex on 65 of The Landings’ 77 acres. About 12 acres would be preserved as a golf course, according to senior partner Rob Webster.

The proposal does not specify any secured tenants, but it would be built to accommodate medical manufacturing and other light industry as opposed to heavier production like automotive, Webster said. Build-out could take up to seven years.

Denise Sanderson, the city’s economic development and housing director, said the golf course was pegged in the city’s 2011 strategic plan to be converted to light industrial. The site has the Clearwater Airpark directly northeast and an industrial section of Hercules Avenue to the east.

But more than a dozen residents who live in condominiums to the west of The Landings along Keene Road wrote and called in to the council’s virtual meeting over Zoom to warn about the impact an industrial park would have on nearby schools, residents and quality of life.

“There are other options for this land, I’d say, than ruining the ambiance of the neighborhoods all around it,” said Steve Grant, who lives in a condo to the west.

“Semi-trucks going in, delivery vans going in, God knows what kind of chemicals coming in and out … this is really going to impact this little neighborhood,” said Robin Rinberger.

Beckman made a motion to table the issue to a later date so residents and elected officials could gather more information about the project and the property. Several residents noted they had only learned about the proposal from the discussion during the Monday work session, others from a story in Wednesday’s Tampa Bay Times. The motion to table died with only Bunker’s support.

But Hibbard argued the public will have more opportunities to weigh in during required approvals in June and will have the ultimate say at the polls in November.

“We live in a representative democracy where the majority of the time the City Council or the governing body is making the decisions — not on this one," Hibbard said. “This one’s going to the people. If the case is not made for this, then the people will vote it down and I have faith in the voters of Clearwater. And if you don’t allow them to vote on it, I think you’re saying you don’t trust them to make the right decision.”