When developer Ron Carpenter’s company bought the 96-acre Tides Golf Club in 2016 for $3.8 million, the options for what he could do with the property were limited.
Pinellas County allows land designated as open space, like the Tides, to be used as golf courses, parks, public recreation facilities or beach access. So in order to build the 273-home gated community overlooking Boca Ciega Bay he proposed three years later, Carpenter needed the county commission to grant a land use change to residential.
The Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday voted unanimously to deny Carpenter’s land use change application to build luxury homes on the property, which sits in the 100-year floodplain and would be inundated by a Category 1 hurricane. Officials cited the proposal’s conflict with the comprehensive plan, the guiding document for all development, which directs homes to be built away from vulnerable areas and discourages converting open space into residential use.
“This proposed project is in no manner, shape or form consistent” with the comprehensive plan, Commissioner Janet Long said.
County officials call their commitment to planning for climate change and preserving open space a matter of policy, but Carpenter is calling it “a textbook case of a taking.”
“The county has now painted me into a corner. They have stripped me of all financially and economically viable options for my property,” Carpenter said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “The wheels are already in motion and we are moving swiftly to file a claim in federal court. This could be the largest suit in Pinellas County history.”
The battle over the waterfront golf course bordering the 187-acre Boca Ciega Millennium Park is not new.
In 2014, developer Taylor Morrison went under contract to buy the foreclosed property from Wells Fargo under the condition the county would grant a land use change. But after county planning staff recommended denial for the 170-home proposal, the developer walked away from the purchase before the application got to the county commission for a vote.
Carpenter bought the land outright in 2016. When asked about his original intentions, he declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation.
On Tuesday, Carpenter’s attorney Joel Tew argued that the group tried to make the golf course viable. They bought new golf carts, revamped marketing, implemented a happy hour, but still lost $200,000 in 2018, the year they shut the course down, Tew said.
Tew pointed to the county’s comprehensive plan that states residential use is appropriate in areas within the 100-year floodplain only when open space uses “are not feasible.”
“This would be like saying if you and your spouse started a restaurant on the neighborhood corner and you invested $1 million and you did your darnedest to make a go of it but people didn’t come .... that you should be required to continue to run a failing business because that’s the zoning use the property allows and that you can’t change it to something reasonable,” Tew said.
Pinellas County long range planning manager Scott Swearengen said the county’s role is not to determine what kind of business would work.
But the county must follow its comprehensive plan when considering land use changes, and Carpenter’s proposal for 273 homes in the coastal storm area would have negative impacts on infrastructure investment, utilities, roadways, hurricane evacuation and the existing population, Swearengen said.
“The retention of open space in the vulnerable area, it’s important as it provides intrinsic value for environmental and storm mitigation purposes in a nearly built out county like Pinellas where such resources are scarce,” Swerengen said. “These are scarce resources for us right now. We’re at that point.”
The county’s local planning agency also recommended denial in April, agreeing with staff’s rationale.
The land is one of the few undeveloped large tracts left in the county. The property was platted for 273 homes in 1926 but housing was never built.
It was used for cattle grazing before a golf course opened in 1973. As the county was developing its comprehensive plan in 1975, officials designated the land use as recreation/open space, which reflected the use at the time. In 1992, the then-owner requested the residential plat be vacated, which extinguished all entitlements to the 273 units, according to county attorney Jewel White.
The golf course is surrounded by single-family homes to the north and east, which Tew said proves “this land was always intended to be developed exactly in the form and with the same density as those surrounding neighborhoods.”
Susan Finch, a land use planner hired by a resident to testify at the hearing, argued while there is a sea of development around the Tides, the homes were built in the late 1960s, “well before we (knew) as much as we know now and how important it is to keep people out of these emergency areas.”
Along with three lawyers and a land use planner who spoke on behalf of residents against the development, the county received 696 letters, emails and phone calls in opposition. Save the Tides, the group that formed to fight the Taylor Morrison proposal in 2014, also collected a petition with more than 19,000 signatures, said president Ron Stephens.
“It may never be a golf course again, but it can always remain a recreation open space,” Stephens told the commission. “We must not let (the developer) be successful with this sham they are trying to perpetrate in our community, which is the utter destruction of this gem that we call our Tides golf course recreation open space. Please don’t ever let it happen.”