TAMPA — It was past 11 p.m. on a Thursday night in January when environmental attorney Ronald Noble stood behind a lectern to address City Council members in a cavernous room at the Tampa Convention Center.
Council members were mulling whether to approve a developer’s rezoning request to clear the way for a 299-unit apartment building and 15-slip marina to be built on Rattlesnake Point, a nearly 31-acre peninsula jutting westward into Tampa Bay just south of the Gandy Bridge.
Noble — perhaps aware that council members had started their official business that day at 9 a.m. — got right to the point.
“Tonight we need to sound the alarm,” Noble said.
Chemical Formulators Inc., manufactures water treatment supplies on the formerly industrial patch of land now primed for residential development, Noble said, representing the company.
The company uses chlorine and caustic soda to make its products. Both chemicals are highly dangerous if they leak or explode. A toxic gas cloud wouldn’t be stopped, Noble said, by the 10-foot retaining wall developers had promised to erect as part of a 2016 agreement to reduce risk to future residents from the chemical plant, which would abut the proposed four-story development.
Putting an apartment building next to a chemical plant violated the basic principles of zoning, Noble said.
Council member Orlando Gudes leaned back, a surprised look on his face.
“Are we aware of what this gentleman is talking about?” Gudes asked city and county planners.
They were. According to the 2016 agreement, what Woodfield Acquisitions, LLC, planned to do complied with the city’s comprehensive land-use plan, planners told council members.
Five years ago, property owners on the peninsula had successfully petitioned the city to revise a previous rule that stated residential units couldn’t be built on Rattlesnake Point until heavy industry had left.
Chemical Formulators, Noble noted, hadn’t been included in that discussion.
After listening to Noble’s argument, council denied the rezoning, saying the developer hadn’t proven that residents wouldn’t be placed at undue risk.
Woodfield has filed a lawsuit in Hillsborough County Circuit Court seeking to overturn the council’s decision. Among other issues, the suit argues that neither Noble nor any of the other speakers had the necessary qualifications or expertise to opine on the potential dangers of the chlorine plant.
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In February, another developer presented an even bigger residential project to council members: 650 apartment units with water views at the western tip of Rattlesnake Point.
But the downside of that stunning view of the bay was that W. Tyson Avenue was the only way in and out of the narrow peninsula, said Steve Meadows, of the Port Tampa City Neighborhood Association at the Feb. 11 meeting.
And the chemical plant stood between those residents and the rest of South Tampa. There would be nowhere to flee, he said.
“The chemical plant is between them and safety,” Meadows said.
Council member John Dingfelder pressed a safety consultant about the possible threat. He asked her several times about the level of risk of a poisonous gas cloud drifting along at ground level, since chlorine is heavier than air.
The consultant, Martha Ira, said that the safety plan for the area contained an option to shelter in place. An evacuation might not be called for, she said.
If he was one of those apartment dwellers with a bay view, Dingfelder asked, and didn’t know enough to shut off his air conditioner, what could happen?
“Would it kill me?” he asked.
The danger threat, Ira said, depended on a host of factors. She declined to give a definitive answer.
Shortly after that exchange, the applicant, Orion Marine Construction Inc., asked for a delay until April 8.
It’s not the first time that placing homes near the Chemical Formulators plant has raised concerns. When the city was eyeing the land for residential development in 2005, the former head of the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission wrote a city official warning of the possible dangers to future residents. But the city declared in 2007 that residential use should move forward.
Because of the potential danger, Chemical Formulators tried to modify the 2016 agreement that opened Rattlesnake Point up for residential development. But that effort in June 2018 failed to persuade council members.
The issue has resurfaced in recent months as part of a larger effort by some South Tampa residents to limit multi-family housing, which they say has led to traffic clogs and strained daily life.
Rattlesnake Point, they say, is a textbook case of packing residents into risky housing — and the city’s planning code contains a dangerous loophole.
“Why isn’t there a box for ‘hazardous chemical plant next door’? said Carroll Ann Bennett, who is active in the efforts to slow multi-family development south of Gandy Boulevard. “Why isn’t there any consideration for something that might be dangerous?”
But others say that living near industry is old hat for Tampeños. They point to the Channel District and Palmetto Beach, neighborhoods adjacent to Tampa’s bustling Port. They note that the chlorine arriving at night by train in Rattlesnake Point gets there after crossing through huge swaths of the city. The risk, they say, is overblown.
“This is how Tampa has developed out over time,” said Elise Batsel, an attorney representing Orion Marine.
Former council member Mike Suarez, who voted against Chemical Formulators’ 2018 attempt to modify the planning rules, voiced a similar sentiment at the time.
“We have very dangerous chemicals all over the city. We are an industrial city. We have always been a working city, unlike other places in Florida, the Sarasotas and Venices of the world,” Suarez said at the June 2018 meeting.
Then as now, Council members could vote to initiate changing the comprehensive plan back to bar residential development. But at least one apartment project has already been approved, complicating matters.
Rattlesnake Point, like most of Tampa’s waterfront, is in the coastal high-hazard zone. The city is currently studying how future development might be impacted by rising seas and how to mitigate the effects of climate change.
That’s a possible opportunity to reconsider the best use for Rattlesnake Point as well as other waterfront areas, said Dingfelder.
“I think it’s very likely that the council will revisit those issues,” he said.