With the former Tides Golf Club’s location along Boca Ciega Bay at high risk for flooding and storm surge, an advisory board on Tuesday recommended Pinellas County deny a land use change needed for a developer to build 273 homes on the 96 acres of green space in Seminole.
The Local Planning Agency agreed with county planning staff’s opinion that the application is incompatible with the comprehensive plan, which discourages converting privately owned open space to residential use and advises the county keep homes out of the coastal storm area.
This initial denial of the application to turn the environmentally sensitive Tides property into housing is the latest flashpoint in the debate over vanishing green space in Pinellas County - a developer pitching his plan as an environmentally sensible approach to home building and the county pushing back with concerns over the loss of open space and threat of sea level rise.
Before the planning agency voted unanimously to recommend denial of the application, Joel Tew, a land use attorney representing Tampa developer Ron Carpenter, suggested the county was misinterpreting its own comprehensive plan to keep development away.
“Is the county simply trying to beat down the property owner to devalue the land so it can end up buying it cheaply for a public park?” Tew said. “That’s what I think is at play here. That’s wrong, that’s unlawful and that can’t be made to happen.”
The Pinellas County Commission is expected to vote on the application May 25.
For nearly a decade, residents and environmentalists have been fighting development at the Tides, which has the 187-acre Boca Ciega Millennium Park to the west and neighborhoods to the north and east.
Developer Taylor Morrison walked away from a contract to buy the course in 2014 after county staff recommended denial of a land use change for the group to build 170 homes.
A company led by Carpenter bought the Tides in 2016 for $3.85 million and shut the golf course down in 2018 as it bled money.
Pinellas County planners initially recommended denial for Carpenter’s land use change application for his 273 home proposal in April 2020. He resubmitted an amended package in November 2020, which the local planning agency heard on Tuesday.
Pinellas County long range planning manager Scott Swearengen noted the recreation/open space land use has no current density for housing and that the comprehensive plan allows for a change to residential land use in areas within the 100-year floodplain, like the Tides, only when preservation, open space and recreation uses “are not feasible.”
“These are serious and important issues that impact people already in the county, environmental resources, investments like public infrastructure,” Swearengen said.
With two-thirds of the property within the 100-year flood plain, and that area subject to inundation by a category 3 hurricane, Pinellas County public works floodplain coordinator Lisa Foster noted “the highly vulnerable area” would also put pressure on surrounding shelter resources.
But because the property was platted in 1926 for 273 homes, Tew argued that the property has always been zoned residential. It was given a special exception in 1969 for a golf course and depicted as recreation/open space on the future land use map in 1975, according to county records.
The underlying plat was vacated in 1992. Tew also noted that the residents living in the surrounding subdivisions also live in the coastal storm area - but Susan Finch, a land use planner hired by a resident to testify at the hearing, argued those homes were built in the 60s and 70s, well before the current comprehensive plan was adopted.
Tew also used the comprehensive plan to argue why the development should be approved. The land use policy requires the county to “limit the exposure of residents and property to coastal hazards” - but it doesn’t prohibit building in coastal areas, Tew said.
“This is the county’s bible,” Tew said. “If their goal and their intent was to restrict development ... it would have been written to say ‘shall not approve’” development in any coastal area.
Carpenter’s application also includes retention ponds to capture and treat runoff that now flows unfiltered into Boca Ciega Bay, a consequence of treated golf courses. He also proposed building a perimeter trail that could be used by the public.
Tew argued that the county was essentially “taking” private property by prohibiting an owner from developing. But planning board agency member Mattaniah S. Jahn pointed to how the comprehensive plan allows the conversion of land from open space to residential when open or recreation spaces “are not feasible.”
Because a private park and water access uses would be feasible, in this case, the developer “at best showed they can’t operate a golf course on there,” Jahn said.