PINELLAS PARK — City Council members have approved annexation of nearly 20 acres of vacant land along the city's east-west corridor, potentially increasing annual projected tax revenue by more than $275,000 and signaling the next phase in a years-long saga concerning the property's fate.
Included in the voluntary annexation agreement for land formerly occupied by the Golden Lantern Mobile Home Park at 7950 Park Blvd. is the city's waiver of land development fees up to $90,000, along with any required zoning-related application fees, for up to five years.
City Manager Doug Lewis said the annexation agreement opens the door for development of the long-vacant property that will be a boon for the city beyond the increased tax revenue.
"This is an area our staff has been looking at for many years," Lewis said. "As the western gateway to the city, it's a great site for residential development that can provide housing as more businesses come to Pinellas Park."
While a developer has not yet come forward, Lewis said, highest and best use of the property across from the Wagon Wheel Flea Market would be construction of up to 170 townhomes.
It's hardly a new vision for the property, one of the largest remaining undeveloped commercial sites in Pinellas County.
As far back as 2005, then-owner Mas Verde Mobile Home Estates began negotiating with a new owner to purchase the 19.6-acre parcel for $4.75 million. The deal was contingent on successful rezoning of the property that would allow construction of affordable apartments, high-end condos and a small retail center.
In April 2006, county commissioners approved a land use change for the property, which at that time was occupied by 178 mobile homes. Commissioners also approved a development agreement allowing construction of 225 rental apartments and up to 17,500 square feet of neighborhood commercial retail space.
Golden Lantern residents fought the change from the start, petitioning commissioners that the park was their home and claiming they couldn't afford to move or live anyplace else. Many experienced a change of heart when it appeared a $1.5 million settlement with the developer would provide an $18,382 payout for each of the 68 remaining residents who owned their mobile homes.
Those residents urged commissioners to approve the deal, but other roadblocks materialized, including a lawsuit filed by a park holdout who claimed the county skirted the law when it improperly published a legal notice about public hearings on the rezoning and land use application.
A bigger problem surfaced concerning whether the park was in a Level 1 or Level 2 hurricane evacuation zone. A Level 1 rating would limit density, diminishing the developer's return on investment. The new owner nevertheless announced plans to close the park and began issuing eviction notices.
About two-dozen residents sued, alleging the owners reneged on the agreement to buy their mobile homes. Then, the Florida Department of Community Affairs told the county it would not approve the land use for the property, primarily due to the increased densities that would result.
The county began negotiating with the state to find a way to get the deal approved. Meanwhile, officials determined the park was, indeed, in a Level 1 evacuation zone.
Staff recommended that the previous land use change request be rescinded, offering apologies to Golden Lantern residents. But by that time, demolition was under way, with only about 35 residents remaining in the park.
The last mobile homes were later razed, leaving behind a wasteland of debris. The property has been vacant ever since.
Pinellas Park economic development manager Shannon Coughlin said the property has been on her radar for the duration of her 22-year career with the city. She has been working closely with the current owner, Huntley Properties, to shepherd the property through the city's voluntary annexation process.
"We need more places for people to live," Coughlin said. "If they live here, they're likely to work here, so it's good for the city's economy."
Once the property owner contracts with a developer, the city will initiate meetings with utilities and planning and zoning staff to expedite next steps, Coughlin said, a perk of being part of Pinellas Park.
Meanwhile, city administrators will continue to follow their slow but steady approach to converting pockets of unincorporated Pinellas County within the city's boundaries to the city proper. That approach has grown Pinellas Park by 540 acres since 2010.
A 5-acre parcel is scheduled to come before council members for an annexation vote this month, Coughlin said; two additional parcels totaling about 18 acres are scheduled to come the first week of June.
If council members approve the requests, the city will have voluntarily annexed more than 50 acres over a three-month period, completely filling in its western boundary.