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The battle for 100 acres in Pinellas County

A Tampa development group wants to build 273 homes on the former Tides Golf Club. Residents and county planners say it should remain as green space.

A development group’s proposal for turning the former Tides Golf Club into a housing community comes with a big environmental pitch.

Soil contaminated with pesticides from years of turf treatments would be cleaned during construction. New ponds would capture and treat runoff that now flows unfiltered into Boca Ciega Bay. Even the name of the development evokes a respect for nature: Restoration Bay.

But in a report completed this month, Pinellas County planners cited significant environmental concerns about the proposal, led by Tampa developer Ron Carpenter, to put 273 homes on the 96 acres in unincorporated Seminole. They recommended the county deny the land use change needed for the group to build on some of the area’s last remaining green space.

Due to uncertainty over the coronavirus outbreak, it is unclear when the Local Planning Agency will meet to vote on the application, a step required before the Pinellas County Commission weighs in.

Ed Methfessel, whose home borders the golf course’s ninth hole, still sees a larger battle ahead. The county’s report is encouraging, he said, but residents have seen this before. An Arizona developer tried to build on the property almost a decade ago, prompting Methfessel to form a neighborhood alliance called Save the Tides.

That developer walked away from a contract to buy the golf course in 2014 after county staff advised against the land use change. Two years later, Carpenter’s group bought the property and closed the course to the public in 2018 before submitting its plan.

“Pinellas County as a whole is basically built out, so for future generations we want people to enjoy an oasis in the middle of a concrete jungle,” Methfessel said. “If we as a community don’t stand up to developers, they’ll just mow us over.”

The worn sign at the entrance of the former Tides Golf Club, 11832 66th Ave. N in Seminole. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
• • •

The Tides is a rarity in the state’s most densely populated county. The property was platted in 1926 but housing never came to the virgin Florida soil.

It was used for cattle grazing before a golf course opened in 1973. Nothing more than a clubhouse was built on the 96 acres — 150, counting the mangroves and wetlands.

The property abuts the 187-acre Boca Ciega Millennium Park, which is a state-recognized birding trail and the site of a major 2007 archaeological find of Pleistocene-age fossils. A bald eagle was spotted there twice this week, said Clearwater Audubon Society president Barb Walker.

According to Tim Scofield, principal planner with Pinellas County, Paleoindian-era fossils dating to the earliest period humans appeared in Florida are also thought to be buried on the Tides property. The former golf course is now a habitat for a variety of wildlife like herons, gulls and softshell turtles.

A view from above, looking southwest over the former Tides Golf Club. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Most of the 5,300 acres of private open space left in Pinellas County are taken up by golf courses, which makes protecting them from development a critical issue, said Richard Gehring, a veteran Tampa Bay planning official hired by Save the Tides to represent their effort.

If the county grants a land use change at the Tides from recreation open space to residential, Gehring fears other developers would be able to use the case as precedent to pave over more green space.

“There is one fundamental point that must be interjected into the scramble to find enough land for everybody,” Gehring said. “Once open space and natural areas begin to be nibbled away, they will inevitably be lost, plain and simple, and they will not come back.”

Two other local golf courses recently were spared from development. In January the Pinellas County Commission bought the abandoned 42-acre Baypointe Golf Course in Seminole to preserve as a park and a regional stormwater management area.

Carpenter had been under contract to buy Baypointe for a housing project but walked away when it was determined the property had no development rights.

And the owner of the 150-acre Bardmoor Golf and Tennis Club, also in Seminole, was under contract last year to sell the property to Wheelock Communities and Gentry Land, companies that developed the sprawling Starkey Ranch in Pasco County. But Blake Lyon, the county’s director of building and development review services, said on Thursday that no rezoning application was ever submitted for the Bardmoor property.

RELATED: Bye-bye Bardmoor? Golf courses disappear as developers seek a new kind of green

• • •

Protecting the limited amount of open space in Pinellas County is a matter of policy.

The county’s comprehensive plan prohibits the conversion of publicly owned recreation land to make way for development. When it comes to privately owned open space, the plan explicitly discourages zoning changes. Rezoning of private open space would require “a comparable level of public benefit," according to the staff report.

County planners wrote that despite the developers’ proposal to treat stormwater runoff from Restoration Bay and surrounding subdivisions, the public benefit of the housing project does not offset the loss of open space.

There are also significant flooding risks, according to the county report. The entire property sits in the Coastal Storm Area and almost three-fourths of it is in the 100-year flood plain, conflicting with the county’s goals to direct development away from sensitive areas. County projections also show much of the southern portion affected by sea-level rise in the coming decades.

Carpenter declined an interview request, citing the quasi-judicial nature of the upcoming county hearing on his application.

His group’s application bases its request for 273 units on the layout of the original plat from 1926. County staff, however, noted that the property’s previous owner vacated the plat in 1992.

Taylor Morrison, the last developer to apply for a land use change of the property, submitted plans to the county before buying the golf course; its purchase depended on the land use change and rezoning being granted.

But Carpenter’s group bought the property in 2016 for $3.8 million, closed the golf course to the public in 2018 and then submitted redevelopment plans to the county.

Carpenter declined to answer what his group plans to do with the property if the county denies his land use change request.

Before withdrawing its application in 2014, Taylor Morrison had proposed building 170 homes on the property, 103 fewer than Carpenter’s proposal. Taylor Morrison also proposed preserving 18 of the 96 acres for green space as opposed to the 10 acres preserved in Carpenter’s application.

But county staff at the time was just as resistant to this less-intense development.

“Fundamentally, staff is concerned that private recreation/open space lands must not become generally viewed as ‘vacant’ and developable land in our built-out county,” according to the 2014 staff report.

“With a flood insurance crisis and associated extreme weather and sea level rise concerns looming in the county, it is difficult to support the introduction of population density into a coastal area where residential development has not been permitted for 40 years,” staff wrote.

• • •

The Save the Tides group did not stop their activism after the last developer walked away in 2014. They continued meeting to discuss the next inevitable attempt to pave over the greens and continued collecting signatures from golfers, residents and visitors supporting their cause.

Their petition now has 19,166 signatures, a statistic resident Ron Stephens recently noted in one of his regular emails to Pinellas County commissioners urging them to preserve the Tides forever. About 200 residents showed up to a March staff hearing on the application, many in green Save the Tides shirts, to show solidarity against the project.

A "Save The Tides" sign in the front yard of Diane Blair, who lives across the street from the former Tides Golf Club. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Stephens said ideally he would like to see the owners revert the property back into a golf course or turn it into a park to connect with the neighboring Millennium Park.

In an interview, Stephens said the mission is not about losing the view behind his home. It is about making preservation a priority in Pinellas County, a point he articulated in his most recent email to elected officials.

“Our county is densely populated, we all know that," Stephens wrote. "Deny this development plan and all the evil it stands for.”

Ron Stephens, left, and Ed Methfessel helped form the Save the Tides group to advocate against redevelopment of the Tides Golf Club. [Times (2014)]