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Tuesday, Mar 20, 2018
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Developer appealing rejection of Safety Harbor apartment project

CLEARWATER — A developer is asking Pinellas County to reverse its rejection of a controversial plan to build apartments on a former industrial complex at the corner of McMullen-Booth Road and State Road 590 in Safety Harbor.

It could be a tough sell for the County Commission, though, which already rejected it in the spring because it’s trying to preserve its inventory of industrial-zoned land.

Richman Group, Ltd., based in West Palm Beach, has been trying to develop a 34-acre site currently owned by fragrance manufacturer Firmenich, and an administrative judge will hear its case once again.

At hearing scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday at the County Center, at 315 Court St., the developer will try to convince the judge that county commissioners were wrong to reject a proposal to build a 246-unit apartment complex with 25,000 square feet of office space.

The judge will pass a recommendation on to county commissioners, who will weigh the case once again in their capacity as the Countywide Planning Authority. They don’t have to follow the judge’s recommendation, though.

In May, Pinellas commissioners were presented with the plan. Several people living near the site spoke against the project, and hundreds emailed and wrote letters to the commissioners asking them to turn it down, citing concerns over traffic problems and the development’s incongruity with the surrounding area. The commission unanimously rejected the project, but not on those grounds.

“The reason that we rejected it is that we don’t want to rezone industrial land,” said Commissioner Susan Latvala. “This was purely about the fact that we don’t want to rezone.”

Now, the developer is saying that there would be no net loss of industrial lands, that the county has gained it in other places. A petition to the county also cites money the developer lost during the application process, claims that apartments are a good fit for the site and points to conflicting traffic data.

Unlike the May hearing, this week’s proceedings will be carried out much like a legal trial. Evidence will be presented, witnesses will be interviewed by attorneys on both sides, and a judge will rule on whether or not the development proposal should proceed. Just like a trial, its many opponents won’t be allowed to speak, but some plan on attending the proceedings anyway.

“We’re still here, and we’re still concerned,” said Barbara Hugg, an opponent of the project who lives near the site. “Although we can’t speak tomorrow, our presence will be known.”

Two outcomes are possible. The judge can either deem the proposal appropriate, or it can side with the commissioners. In either case, the conclusion will go back to the commission, which will have the ultimate say on whether or not to reverse its prior decision.

Commission Chairman Ken Welch said that, barring an anomaly, his opinion probably won’t change, and those of his colleagues probably wouldn’t, either.

“I don’t see anything at this point changing my mind on this vote,” he said. “I think the County Commission’s consensus is pretty clear.”

The Safety Harbor City Commission approved the proposal 3-2 back in February, even as dozens of opponents packed City Hall to speak against it.

“There was nothing that we could do but stand on our heads and spit wooden nickels,” said Steve Rosenthal, one of the project’s staunchest opponents. “It didn’t matter if the skies opened and it rained money, it wouldn’t change.”

Those on the Safety Harbor commission who were for the plan have little say in the outcome of this week’s hearing, but will have to deal with the decision’s impact on tax revenue, population density and the local job market.

“We made a decision at the city level to move forward, and the county had different ideas. Now it’s really out of our hands,” said Mayor Joseph Ayoub. “Whatever the administrative judge decides, we’ll move forward on it.”

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Developer appealing rejection of Safety Harbor apartment project