When Pinellas County established the East Lake Tarpon Overlay District in 2012, the goal was to preserve the area’s rural nature and limit concrete sprawl.
So when a development group bought nearly 44 acres of woods on the north side of the East Lake community to build homes, they wanted to jump ship into the bordering Tarpon Springs.
The developer, Tarpon Springs-based George Stamas, asked the city last year to draw the land into the city limits where the code would allow him to build one home per acre — twice the density than if the property remained in the unincorporated county.
In December, the Tarpon Springs City Commission voted unanimously to annex the 44 acres into the city, paving the way for 44 planned homes by Pioneer Developers of America.
Now a group of residents organized as the Save East Lake group is suing the city of Tarpon Springs over the annexation, alleging the city departed from the law in its rational and disregarded the spirit of the overlay district.
“We’re not against that property being developed at all if they develop it in the way it should be, which is 21 homes," said Marc Washburn, president of Save East Lake, who has lived just south of the proposed project site for 25 years. “They want to laugh to the bank for every penny they can get."
Stamas acknowledged he sought annexation so he could build twice the number of homes that he could have if the land remained under the East Lake overlay, but he said that was not the only reason.
“The fact of the matter is the property is contiguous with the city and is eligible to be annexed,” said Stamos, whose development group has built more than 1,000 homes in the city. “We were born in Tarpon, our development company is in Tarpon. It made sense for us.”
Dozens of East Lake residents implored the city to deny the annexation before the final vote on Dec. 10, citing the impacts on traffic, stormwater, wildlife and their rural way of life. A final vote on required rezoning and the site plan is not yet scheduled.
The Pinellas County Commission also urged the city to deny the request, stating in a Dec. 5 letter that it would “directly contradict the intent of the East Lake Tarpon Overlay." Then-County Commission Chair Karen Seel cited in her letter that state law gives the city discretion over whether or not to annex land into the city limits.
But during a hearing on Dec. 10, Tarpon Springs City Attorney Tom Trask disagreed with the county’s position. Trask said the application fell under a quasi-judicial hearing, meaning City Commissioners had no say in the matter: they had to approve the request if it met all criteria of the development code, including the fact the property borders the city.
Trask on Friday declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed on Jan. 10 in Pinellas County Circuit Court.
“We have to make a decision based on the facts we have in front of us,” Mayor Chris Alahouzos said before approving the annexation.
Washburn’s group filed the lawsuit without an attorney, but he said he is evaluating all options as the litigation unfolds. The suit alleges Trask intimidated witnesses at the hearings by stating they should not voice opinions “in regards to something already provided by previous speakers.”
The lawsuit also highlights the residential/agricultural zoning of the property as evidence it is intended for livestock and rural uses. And it argues the annexation was improper because the development still intends to use county water and sewer while in city limits.
“It appears as though Pioneer Homes is not desiring an annexation into the city of Tarpon Springs to be able to take advantage of services to be provided by the city, but to use annexation simply for financial gain at the expense of surrounding property owners,” said Terri Whetzel, property manager for the adjacent Cypress Run community.
While the litigation unfolds, residents have also begun erecting signs in the East Lake area around the 44 acres, trying to dissuade home buyers from investing in the project.
“Homebuyers: North Lake Estates is built on Swampland! You must love chiggers, no-see-ums, rattlesnakes, gators, scorpions and spiders. Neighborhood tip: Keep rifle handy in case coyotes grab your dog or cat! Don’t buy in North Lake Estates!”