TARPON SPRINGS — Around 4:50 a.m. on Thursday, after more than 10 hours of testimony, the City Commission voted 3-1 to advance a Texas developer’s plan to build 404 apartments on greenspace along the Anclote River.
The marathon session was a continuation of a meeting that began on Tuesday evening and recessed six hours later. Combined, the 16 hours of testimony delved into details of the city’s comprehensive plan, traffic studies, base flood elevations and density — followed by allegations of local government corruption.
Before the predawn vote, about 30 residents took turns urging commissioners to vote against the project over concerns including safety and loss of greenspace. A few residents’ comments boiled over into accusations of collusion between city officials and the developer, Houston-based Morgan Group, to push the project through. Panagiotis Koulias, who is running for a commission seat in the 2022 city election, warned commissioners they better “wait till the feds come and auditors come and investigate this network.”
“You heard a lot about character assassination tonight on our staff, on Pinellas County’s staff,” Commissioner Connor Donovan said before the meeting adjourned. “We need to get away from the mindset of McCarthyism, where somebody gives me an answer, I don’t really like it, so I’ll call them corrupt, call it a day.”
The approval of Morgan Group’s preliminary application was a milestone after a year of hearings on the proposal, which will come back to the commission for a final vote Nov. 9. In February, Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs sued the city and developer over the project, proposed for nearly 74 acres on the east side of U.S. 19 along the Anclote River.
Commissioners who voted to approve the project said their decision came down to how Morgan Group’s proposal for the privately owned property met all requirements of city code and the comprehensive plan. Under the quasi-judicial process, if the evidence demonstrated that the developer’s plan met the criteria, “then the board is required by law to find in favor of the applicant,” City Attorney Tom Trask explained.
In other words, Vice Mayor Jacob Karr said, he couldn’t vote against the plan just because he’d prefer to see it stay as open space.
“Do I own the property? I don’t own the property, no. Does the city own the property? No, the city doesn’t own the property,” Karr said. “It’s not a discussion. Is it going to be a park tonight? Is it going to be an apartment complex? Is it going to be preservation? ... That’s not the discussion tonight.”
Of the site’s 64 acres that are not submerged, 29 acres would be developed in Morgan Group’s project. Of the 22 acres of wetlands, slightly less than 1 acre would be developed, according to the application.
Commissioner Townsend Tarapani recused himself from the vote due to a conflict of interest as his stepmother, Cyndi Tarapani, works as a planner for Morgan Group. Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis, the only no vote, said he does not believe the plan is consistent with the city’s ordinances on public safety.
The plan includes two entrances on U.S. 19, which the city requires for projects larger than 50 units. Drivers heading south will have to make a U-turn and cross three lanes of traffic to enter the complex.
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A traffic expert hired by the city testified that the two entrances were safe. But Vatikiotis noted that the developer has not yet received approval from the Florida Department of Transportation for the second entrance.
The property is also prone to flooding as it sits in the Coastal High Hazard Area. Vatikiotis said this conflicts with city policy to direct population away from such areas.
Before the application comes back to the commission for a final vote in November, Karr said he will be reviewing more of the information submitted by the Concerned Citizens Group regarding flooding concerns and potential conflicts with the comprehensive plan.