TARPON SPRINGS — With concerns about safety on U.S. 19 and building an apartment complex in a coastal storm area, the planning and zoning board on Monday recommended the city commission deny a Texas developer’s plan for 404 units along the Anclote River.
The decision was a reversal for the advisory board, which voted in November to recommend approval. The proposal cleared preliminary approval by Tarpon Springs commissioners in January and was on track for a final vote. But Morgan Group, a Houston-based company, restarted the review process with a new application due to the need to add a second access point on U.S. 19.
Multiple board members said they more closely scrutinized traffic issues this time, including how drivers heading south on U.S. 19 would have to make a U-turn and cross three lanes of traffic to enter the complex. The commission is scheduled to vote on the application Oct. 26.
“I don’t want to feel partially at fault when somebody dies going in or out of the place,” said board chairperson Marlin Seamon.
Debate over a second access point to the property is the latest flash point in a contentious saga that goes back 16 years over the 74 acres of green space along the Anclote River.
Residents sued after the city commission in 2005 approved an application from Walmart to build a Supercenter on the site. A key approval for the project expired while residents tied the retail giant up in court, so Walmart abandoned the project and put the land up for sale in 2013.
Residents advocated for the city to buy and preserve the property, which includes 22 acres of wetlands, two bald eagle nests, threatened gopher tortoises, and pine and oak habitat.
Morgan Group originally requested that the city waive its rule requiring two access points for projects with more than 50 units. But the city commission in January required a second access in its preliminary approval of the application. The developer explored turning Hays Road, which dead ends into the east side of the property, into an access but found it was unfeasible because it would require taking of private property.
Morgan Group said another option would be to seek approval from Florida Department of Transportation for an emergency-only access on U.S. 19 for a second opening. The department’s senior traffic engineer had already testified in January that a second full access point on U.S. 19 was not advisable because it would increase conflict points and potential for more crashes.
The Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs, a nonprofit made up of many residents who challenged Walmart, sued the city and developer in February. They alleged 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.
On Monday, Cyndi Tarapani, a Morgan Group planner, said the company has received the conceptual green light from the state for the two full access points on U.S. 19 and is preparing to apply for a permit. James Taylor, a Kimley-Horn traffic expert hired by Morgan Group, said he deemed the configuration to be safe.
But emails obtained by the concerned citizens group show the complexity of the changes as state officials discussed them internally.
“The public groups and the city keep throwing curve balls at the developers,” Department of Transportation permits coordinator Robert Casey said in a July email to colleagues. “It first started with one access, then it went to an access and a emergency vehicle access ... they now need two access points. I am not sure what to make of it. The more difficult it becomes the easier it is to say no to the whole project. Walmart was first to try to get this site and they were run off by these groups.”
Ed Armstrong, an attorney representing Morgan Group, argued that the apartments would result in less congestion and less impact on the environment than commercial projects that would be allowed on the site with the existing commercial land use designation.
The developer’s analysis predicts a peak of 145 trips per hour in the morning and a peak of 178 trips in the evening related to the apartments. A 400,000 square-foot commercial project would create four times that in the evening, according to the analysis. It said a shopping center or retail and gas station project would generate seven times that.
“These commercial entitlements are in place,” Armstrong said. “If that’s the primary concern of this board, the numbers tell a compelling story.”
However, planning board members detailed their fears about the traffic patterns at the two access points on U.S. 19.
“If I wouldn’t let one of my daughters live there, I sure as hell can’t vote to let any other citizen live in that same location,” planning board member John Koulianos said. “I think it’s a mess.”
The site also sits in the coastal high hazard area, which leaves it highly vulnerable to flooding and storm surge.
In his comments before voting to deny, board member Justin Vessey read from a July 13 letter sent to the city by Pinellas County Public Works director Kelli Hammer Levy.
With sea level rise projections, portions of the property will be inundated by a peak high tide in 2040, Levy said. The state requires cities to restrict development in areas that are subject to natural disaster.
“Even if built to a higher standard, this proposed development does the opposite by placing more people in a highly vulnerable area,” Levy wrote.