TARPON SPRINGS — By the time a heated discussion over Epiphany planning pushed the Dec. 15 City Commission meeting close to midnight, officials hadn’t even gotten to one of the most controversial items to hit their agenda in years.
To avoid an overnight meeting, the commission rescheduled its vote on Houston developer Morgan Group’s application to build a 404-unit luxury apartment complex within a nearly 74-acre wooded property along the Anclote River to Thursday.
The three-week delay was a blessing for Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs — also known as Friends of the Anclote River — the same group that warded off a Walmart Supercenter that the city approved at the site in 2005. The extra time allowed them to hire an environmental attorney, blast a social media campaign and pass out more than 700 fliers in neighborhoods about saving the environmentally sensitive land from development.
The resident-led lawsuits that followed the city’s 2005 approval tied Walmart up in court until the retail giant killed its plan for the Supercenter. This time, Concerned Citizens President Peter Dalacos said he believes his group can demonstrate that traffic and environmental problems will prevent the commission from approving the application in the first place.
“We’re going to provide enough evidence to create the hesitancy where commissioners will have no problem saying ‘I don’t think this is going to be good for our residents,’” Dalacos said.
In the first four years after Walmart put the 74 acres up for sale in 2013, members of Concerned Citizens/Friends of the Anclote contacted City Manager Mark LeCouris and city officials at least nine times about grants to purchase and preserve the land, according to emails of the exchanges.
The environmentally sensitive acreage, with two bald eagle nests, gopher tortoises and live oak habitat on the east side of U.S. 19 also made Pinellas County’s wishlist of properties for preservation in 2018.
But the Tarpon Springs City Commission never made a formal effort to pursue the purchase.
The commission gave first approval to Morgan Group’s application on Dec. 8 by a vote of 4-0, but raised safety concerns regarding the developer’s request for a waiver to have one instead of two entrances. They also questioned the proposed loss of about 1,000 of the site’s 2,403 shade trees, among other issues. City Commissioner Townsend Tarapani recused himself from the vote because his stepmother, Cyndi Tarapani, is a planner for the developer.
The property’s commercial land use designation allows for uses ranging from a big box store to an apartment complex.
“With all the development pressure in Pinellas County, at some point this property will be developed with something,” said attorney Ed Armstrong, who represents Morgan Group.
But the City Commission would have to grant a zoning change from general business to residential planned development, a quasi-judicial process that requires officials to approve the change if the application meets all the criteria of the development code.
If the commission gives second approval to the preliminary application on Thursday, the developer has one year to bring a final development plan back to the city for a vote.
Jane Graham, an environmental attorney representing the Concerned Citizens group, said traffic, environmental and flooding issues clearly make the project incompatible with the city’s comprehensive plan and land development regulations criteria.
Graham said 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, is unreasonable. Nearly the entire property is located in a flood zone, according to an assessment by Kimley-Horn.
“Long term, as an alternative to development on the property, the city should look closer at how to conserve this valuable greenspace,” Graham said. “As far as good candidates within the city of Tarpon Springs, this is definitely a good one to be looking at.”
During the first hearing on Dec. 8, Cyndi Tarapani, planner for Morgan Group, said the developer has gone to great lengths to consider the environmental aspects of this site. 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.
Following the commission’s safety concerns on Dec. 8 about the single entrance, the developer investigated creating a second entrance from a right of way called Hays Road that dead ends into the east side of the property.
Building a road out into the development from the Hays Road right of way would require removing 1.52 acres of wetlands and a federal permit that could take more than a year to obtain, according to a memo Tarapani sent to the city on Tuesday. The right of way is also 40-feet wide, which is 10 feet less than the city’s minimum requirement. That means adjacent property owners would have to grant right of ways for the construction of an improved road.
Tarapani said the estimated cost of building the second entrance road is $509,000. In her memo, she proposed the city build the road using the $573,680 Morgan Group is already estimated to pay in impact fees. She said the developer would also be willing to provide a $100,000 donation toward the road.