SEMINOLE — After City Council members voted against the construction of an affordable housing complex for disabled residents and veterans during a heated meeting last December, concerned neighbors breathed sighs of relief.
They no longer had to worry about the open land behind their homes being used for low-income housing, or the increase in crime and traffic they claimed would follow.
But now, the project is back on the table — this time, moving forward without the need for a council vote.
The proposed 64-unit housing complex — called Valor Preserve — has been in the works since the Pinellas County Housing Authority acquired the 13.5-acre property at 9575 Seminole Blvd. in 2013. If completed, it will provide housing to residents earning less than 60% of the area’s median income, with more than half of the units designated to give veterans preference.
Typically, developments don’t have to be approved by the City Council. A property owner has the right to build on their land, so long as it complies with the zoning and local codes. When a project is not in compliance, however, developers may seek permission to deviate from the rules of the City Council.
Such was the case for Valor Preserve. And that opened the proposal for public discussion, and ultimately pushback. During the meeting last December, 12 people living near the site spoke out against the development. City Council struck it down with a vote of 5-2.
Then, the developer went back to the drawing board, and reconfigured a plan that didn’t need the City Council’s approval.
Norstar Director of Affordable Housing Development Brian Evjen said the new site plans include the same number of units. But Norstar made adjustments to the parking area, added more space between buildings and created greater visibility between the management office and the residential units.
The only remaining conflict came down to the distance between the new construction and a right-of-way that had been in place since 1968 — two years before the City of Seminole was incorporated — and was 25 feet closer than required.
That was the issue brought before the city Board of Adjustments on Monday night. The developer requested permission for development to move forward, regardless because the violation was was minor.
Neighbors in attendance said the development of the property wasn’t minor for them.
“I’m calling upon those present here this evening to reject this project,” one resident, Glen Schultz, told the board during public comment. “I live right on the boundary (of the property). That’s going to be disturbing our years and years of tranquility.”
Community development director Mark Ely told those in attendance that the decision was not about land use and could not be decided based on the public’s feelings. Rather, the board was tasked with addressing the very narrow question posed by the variance request.
“It’s important to recognize that on this case, this is not a question on the site plan, or any of the impacts from the uses,” Ely told the board and those in attendance during Monday’s hearing. “They have the right as a property owner to develop the property.”
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Ely, who conducted research and analysis on the request for the city, recommended the board grant the variance. He has served in his role since 2006 and is set to retire Friday.
Following nearly 45 minutes of discussion, the board took Ely’s recommendation and unanimously approved the variance.
This time it was Evjen and his team who were feeling relief.
“We want to be good neighbors, we want to be transparent about what we’re doing,” Evjen said following the vote. “Hopefully everything will work out.”
Regina Booker, executive director of the Pinellas County Housing Authority, had fewer words.
“We’re elated,” she said.