TARPON SPRINGS — It’s been more than a decade since Walmart abandoned its plan to build a Supercenter on 74 acres along the Anclote River, one of the most contentious developments ever proposed in the city.
Since then, the Friends of the Anclote River group couldn’t convince city officials to buy and preserve the property, which includes 22 acres of wetlands, two bald eagle nests, state threatened gopher tortoises and live oak habitat on the east side of U.S. 19.
Now, Houston-based Morgan Group is under contract to buy the land from Walmart to build a five-building, 404-unit luxury apartment complex. The application has brought flashbacks to community ire and lawsuits that followed the 12-hour city commission meeting in 2005 when the Walmart project was approved.
Cyndi Tarapani, stepmother of City Commissioner Townsend Tarapani, was one of dozens of residents who publicly opposed the commission’s approval of the Walmart 15 years ago. But when the City Commission votes Tuesday on Morgan Group’s preliminary plan, she will be pushing the project as a planner on the development team.
And members of Friends of the Anclote are predicting another legal fight.
“I expect we’ll sue again,” said Chris Hrabovsky, a resident who led two lawsuits that failed in court but succeeded in delaying Walmart’s construction until it dropped its plan and put the property up for sale. “They know we can stop it, they know it should be a park.”
If the City Commission on Tuesday approves the second reading of Morgan Group’s preliminary plan, the developer will have a year to bring a final development plan back to the city for a vote.
The commission approved the first reading of the preliminary plan last week 4-0, with commissioner Townsend Tarapani recusing himself due to his stepmother working for the developer.
A real estate broker, Townsend Tarapani did not respond to a phone call or text message asking whether he had any personal involvement in the project.
The project requires a zoning change from general business to residential planned development. The current land use designation of commercial would allow for uses ranging from a big box store to residences, meaning no change is required on the future land use map for apartments.
“Of all the allowable uses on this property, this is on the extreme low end of intensity,” said attorney Ed Armstrong, who is representing Morgan Group. “That somehow has gotten lost in the discussion.”
Cyndi Tarapani said she opposed the Walmart in 2005, because retail with a gas station and a parking lot 25 feet from the river was an inappropriate use. This apartment complex, she said, is less intense and designed with environment considerations.
Of the site’s 64 acres that are not submerged, 29 acres would be developed. Of the 22 acres of wetlands, 0.9 acres would be developed.
Morgan Group is requesting a waiver to build 8 feet higher than the 45-foot limit, to cluster units and not have to add an additional building, according to Tarpon Springs Planning Director Renea Vincent.
Vincent said if the project is approved, the remaining wetlands would be put into preservation, and undeveloped uplands would be put into recreation open space.
“Essentially we’re removing any lingering development rights that might be out there,” said Vincent, who recommended approval. “Once this project is completed, it will be done.”
The stormwater ponds would begin 330 feet from the eagle nests and the parking lot would be built 660 feet from the nests — beyond the federally required boundary, Tarapani said.
Several commissioners raised concerns about the proposed single access point into the development from U.S. 19, which would require drivers heading south to make a U-turn and cross three lanes of traffic. Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis also questioned why the developer did not have have a reclaimed water system in the project and noted the significant tree loss.
According to the planning documents, about 1,000 of the 2,403 shade trees on site would be removed.
Armstrong said he will be presenting an alternative plan with a secondary access point to the commission on Tuesday.
The application was reviewed by staff in September and approved by the planning board Nov. 16. But several residents and environmental activists said they only heard about it days before the Dec. 8 commission meeting.
Jeff Larsen, a former city commissioner and president of the nonprofit Turn the Tide for Tarpon, sent an email to the commission five and a half hours before its meeting last week requesting the vote be tabled. He expressed concerns about flooding from the wetlands, given sea level rise projections of 3 feet by 2055. He said any development on such a sensitive parcel should have reclaimed water, solar panels and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification required for approval.
In March 2006, an appellate court court dismissed one lawsuit brought by residents against Walmart and the city government, that asked the court to determine whether the city violated procedural rules in approving the project.
The Friends of the Anclote group spent $100,000 on the case. A second lawsuit brought by residents alleged the approval violated the city’s comprehensive plan was later dropped due to costs. But by then, the litigation already caused significant delays.
By 2008 Walmart’s traffic concurrency element that ensures adequate infrastructure had expired, which would have required the retail giant to restart a new round of site plan reviews and hearings. The retail giant put the property up for sale in 2013.
Friends of the Anclote president Peter Dalacos said he met with city manager Mark LeCouris multiple times since 2013 to discuss pursuing state grants to buy the property. Although he said LeCouris told him he’d like the preservation of the land to be his legacy, the effort fizzled.
LeCouris declined to comment on his past discussions with Dalacos about preserving the land.
“There was never any formal effort to purchase the 74-acre site, nor was there any direction by the Board of Commissioners to do so,” public information officer Judy Staley said in a statement. “Cost was the major factor in that decision.”
Pinellas County added the Wal-Mart land to its list of 60 potential preservation acquisitions created in 2018, but the county has no plan for pursuing the list.
Dalacos said his group is now evaluating its next steps.
“The fact is that that it’s got options where you can do a lot with the property where people would be able to use it, not degrade it,” Dalacos said.