Pinellas County was already running out of space 15 years ago when county officials decided they ought to preserve whatever industrial land they could. If it got built over with homes or retail, the logic went, there would be no more room to attract potential high-wage employers.
So they put strict limits on what could get built on 13,000 acres across the county, including in the mid-county Gateway area and Lealman and St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts district.
Today, Florida’s densest county — and second in the state in manufacturing jobs — still faces the planning challenges of being a built-out peninsula on a peninsula. But the picture has gotten more complex, and Pinellas now faces dual crises, said Whit Blanton, the executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s land-use and transportation planning agency.
“One is that we don’t have a great supply of land for target employment and industrial land uses, and that’s something we’ve had a real battle to try to preserve,” he said. “The other crisis is that we need affordable housing.”
Soon, the county could change those land-use limitations to a flexible approach, allowing for more mixed-use development. Leaders hope that will still help draw good jobs, but also add to the housing supply and bring Pinellas’ policies more in line with state law.
The policy change is the key recommendation in the latest Target Employment and Industrial Lands Study, released earlier this year by Forward Pinellas. It’s the first review since the 2008 iteration that spawned the current land-use policies for the chunks of land the county calls “target employment centers.”
The policy driven by the 2008 study “failed to recognize that not all lands are created equal,” Blanton said. Today, it might make sense to keep land near Interstate 275 slated for traditional industrial use, because there’s easy access for trucks and enough space for big buildings.
But then, for example, there’s the Warehouse Arts District, where the rail line that once served area manufacturers is now the Pinellas Trail, and where Blanton said the policy has shut down proposals for live-work arrangements. Or the Coca-Cola bottling site near downtown Dunedin, left behind as the company moves operations to Bartow; some have suggested it’s ripe for residential development.
The nature of work has also changed, especially for the sorts of office jobs that make up many of the county’s target industries: business and financial services, information technology, marketing and design. Companies in those realms want to woo employees with well-appointed offices within walking distance of shops, restaurants and homes.
“That’s why we’re seeing Water Street (Tampa), and the Dale Mabry area in West Tampa, and St. Petersburg really attracting a lot of that,” Blanton said. “We don’t have enough of that in Pinellas County.”
County Commissioner Dave Eggers, who was on an advisory committee for the latest study, said he and others in the county were already thinking about making land use more flexible as early as 2020. That year, state law changed to allow municipal governments to approve affordable housing on industrially zoned land, regardless of county rules.
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Beyond lining up better with statewide policy, loosening the land-use rules to allow for more non-industrial development on those lands would help make sure the people working in Pinellas County also live, play and pay taxes here — and want to stay, Eggers said.
“If those folks end up having to live in another county, as soon as they find a job opportunity there, what are they going to do?” Eggers said. “They’re not going to be satisfied to live and have to travel all that distance. If they find a job up there, they’re going to stay there, and then we’re spending more energy and money to attract people to live here.”
Blanton noted that Pinellas’ competitive housing market has pushed residents into surrounding counties, where employers could soon follow. Pasco County, a hotbed for housing development, has found itself needing to preserve more industrial land, a different study found last year. In southern Hillsborough County, new subdivisions are being built on former farms far faster than local jobs can be created.
Forward Pinellas is in the process of formally endorsing the latest study’s recommendations, Blanton said, and those will likely go to the County Commission for consideration by May. Eggers said he expects his colleagues to be receptive to the proposed change.
“My sense of it is that it should be unanimously embraced,” he said.