In January 2005, after a 12-hour meeting, the Tarpon Springs City Commission voted to allow Walmart to build a Supercenter on 74 acres along the banks of the Anclote River.
Hundreds of residents had shown up to advocate against paving over the green space. For months they held rallies and raised money to sue the city and retail giant over the approval.
Their lawsuit wasn’t successful, but the court battle delayed Walmart long enough that it abandoned its plan and put the land up for sale.
Seventeen years later, the Houston-based Morgan Group has its blessing from the city to begin developing the property to the outrage of many of the same residents who fought Walmart.
During a nine-hour meeting that adjourned at 3:31 a.m. on Wednesday, the commission voted 3-1 to approve the rezoning from general business to residential and 3-1 to approve the final site plan for the developer’s 404 luxury apartments on the east side of U.S. 19. Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis voted no and Commissioner Townsend Tarapani recused himself because his stepmother works for the developer.
Dozens of residents urged the commission to deny the project citing concerns over the safety of two entrances on busy U.S. 19, loss of green space and adding more than 1,000 residents to a site prone to flooding, the same arguments made over the last year of hearings. But Mayor Chris Alahouzos, Vice Mayor Jacob Karr and Commissioner Connor Donovan each said they had no choice but to approve the application because it conforms with the city’s land development code and comprehensive plan.
“We can’t hold the property owner’s land hostage from them until they bend to our will of, ‘Hey, I want it to be a park,’” Donovan said.
Jane Graham, an attorney for Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs, a nonprofit that in February sued the city and Morgan Group over the approval of an earlier version of the application, said the group will continue to challenge the project.
“We will be meeting to explore all of our legal options,” Graham said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “We are dedicated to protecting this gem on Anclote River, as well as the humans and wildlife whose lives would be impacted if this project is built.”
Morgan Group plans to build the apartments across four buildings on the site. Of the 64 acres that are not submerged, 12 acres will have buildings and parking lots, said Tarpon Springs planning director Renea Vincent. Of the 22 acres of wetlands, slightly less than 1 acre would be developed. A conservation easement will also be established for the property, essentially taking away any development rights on the remaining open space.
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Several moments of the meeting reflected the heightened emotions of the saga.
Allegations of corruption have swirled for months on social media and through email chains. Karr condemned the spread of false information, clarifying he is in no way receiving “a large bucket of money” for his vote.
“I haven’t received a dollar from this development, I’m not going to receive a dollar from this development,” Karr said.
He also urged residents to target other properties that could be purchased for preservation. Although activists like Peter Dalacos had talked with state officials about potential grants to acquire the property from Walmart, there was never a formal proposal made to the city.
During Karr’s comments, resident Annie Samarkos began yelling at the commissioners from the audience and was escorted out by police as she shouted “Shame on all of you,” she confirmed.
As the meeting began, Ed Armstrong, an attorney for Morgan Group, reiterated a request he first made last month that Vatikiotis recuse himself due to what Armstrong described as bias about the project. City Attorney Tom Trask said Vatikiotis had no need to step down if he could be fair and impartial, which Vatikiotis confirmed he was.
Vatikiotis explained he could not support the plan because it directs population toward a coastal high hazard area, which he said conflicts with city policy.
Vincent, the city’s planning director, said the project still meets evacuation and shelter needs, an analysis required when allowing development in coastal high hazard areas.
And although three experts testified that two entrances along U.S. 19 were safe, Vatikiotis said he didn’t see evidence from enough studies to prove that. Morgan Group still must secure permits for the second entrance from Florida Department of Transportation.
“I’m not going to take responsibility if and when — it’s not even an if, when — people get hurt on this thing,” Vatikiotis said.
Kamil Salame, a development partner with Morgan Group, said in a statement to the Times that after securing permits from Florida Department of Transportation and Southwest Florida Water Management District, he expects the project to break ground in the first half of 2022.
“We look forward to providing luxury multifamily housing for Tarpon Springs, in a way that honors the site’s natural environment,” Salame said.