TARPON SPRINGS — The long-fought battle over 74 acres of greenspace along the Anclote River is about to start over from scratch.
On Jan. 15, the Tarpon Springs Board of City Commissioners gave Texas-based developer The Morgan Group the first of two approvals needed to build 404 apartments across five buildings on the property.
The Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs nonprofit promptly sued the city and developer, alleging that conditions for a second access point into the proposed complex that were added the day of the vote created an illegal agreement and robbed residents of due process.
Now the developer is preparing to abandon this contested application and submit a new proposal. This one will include details for a second access in plan documents at the start of the city’s review process, said attorney Ed Armstrong, who represents Morgan Group.
For the residents fighting the proposal, the restart represents another opportunity to push against development on the site as they have done for more than 15 years.
“To the extent that this comes in front of the city commission again, my client will be there along with many members of the community, fiercely advocating to protect and preserve the property for generations to come,” said Jane Graham, an attorney representing Concerned Citizens.
In its original application, The Morgan Group requested the city waive its rule requiring two access points for projects with more than 50 units.
Tarpon Springs Planning Director Renea Vincent supported the waiver, stating the only other possible location for a second access, Hays Road that dead ends into the east side of the site, did not have sufficient right of way.
The commission gave first approval of the preliminary application on Dec. 8, but several commissioners raised concerns about the single access on U.S. 19, which which would require drivers heading south to make a U-turn and cross three lanes of traffic.
The hearing for the second reading of the preliminary application spanned three meetings between December and January.
Joel Provenzano, senior traffic engineering specialist for Florida Department of Transportation, testified that a second access point to the apartment complex on U.S. 19 “would not be advisable.”
“We could not control the vehicles the same way we could from a single access,” Provenzano said. “It would increase the conflict points, thus increasing the potential for more crashes.”
At the Jan. 15 meeting, The Morgan Group proposed spending $65,000 on a feasibility study of Hays Road, and if it proved workable, then pay $444,000 to build it.
If the access was not feasible, the developer proposed seeking approval from Florida Department of Transportation for an emergency-only access on U.S. 19.
The commission voted 3-1 to approve the preliminary application with the proposed conditions for the secondary access. Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis voted no and Commissioner Townsend Tarapani recused himself due to his stepmother working for the developer.
The commission adopted Vice Mayor Jacob Karr’s motion that if the developer pursued the emergency-only access on U.S. 19, then Morgan Group should give the city’s land preservation fund the $444,000 that would have been used to build Hays Road.
An engineering study completed on June 1 showed turning the Hays Road right of way into an access would be unfeasible because it would require the taking of private property, said Armstrong, the attorney for The Morgan Group.
Rather than pursing the option of the emergency-only access with the $444,000 donation for a final development hearing, Armstrong said a new application will be able to include two full access points on U.S. 19 “which negates any need to request a waiver under the code.”
Emails show that in June, Florida Department of Transportation officials allowed the Morgan Group to submit a permit for a second access point for formal review.
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, department of transportation spokesperson Kristen Carson said January’s testimony was “very general discussion” about less conflicts with one access. Since then, the developer submitted a design for two that met state spacing requirements, she said.
The city called a special meeting last week to discuss the engineering study of Hays Road. Because building it would require the taking of private property, commissioners voted against the feature in order to formally eliminate the possibility.
But questions around the second access point, and environmental and traffic concerns, prompted more than two dozen residents to speak against the project.
Concerned Citizens consists of many of the same residents who successfully warded off a Walmart Supercenter that the city approved for the site 16 years ago.
The resident-led lawsuits that followed the city’s 2005 approval tied Walmart up in court until the retail giant abandoned its plan for the Supercenter.
Resident Chris Hrabovsky promised Morgan Group and city commissioners the same fate.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Hrabovsky said. “We live here, we’re going to stop this thing. Every single aspect will be challenged in court.”