CLEARWATER — Despite the likelihood of a lawsuit, Pinellas County commissioners went against the recommendation of an administrative law judge Tuesday and denied a controversial apartment complex in Safety Harbor.
The vote is the latest twist in the more than yearlong battle between the developer, the Richman Group, and Safety Harbor residents who oppose plans to turn a 34-acre parcel near McMullen-Booth Road and State Road 590 into a 246-unit apartment complex with 25,000 square feet of office space.
Commissioners originally voted against the project in May, arguing the county would lose scarce industrial land that could be turned into employment centers. The site, home to a former citrus processing center, is considered one of the last large parcels of available industrial land in built-out Pinellas County.
A judge sided with the developer in November. The administrative hearing revealed that the county's industrial land policy had not been incorporated into countywide rules and therefore did not apply to incorporated areas like Safety Harbor.
County Attorney Jim Bennett said commissioners were misinformed when they denied the project in May and recommended they now follow the judge's recommendation.
But to the cheers of residents at the meeting, commissioners said they intend to stand by their decision, even if it means being dragged into circuit court.
“We've spent money fighting the will of the people, I have no problem spending some defending it,” Commissioner Norm Roche said.
Ed Armstrong, the Richman Group's land-use attorney, said he will meet with his clients. “We're going to certainly discuss options with the client and make a decision at some point in the near future,” he said.
Although the outcome of any legal battle is uncertain, the commission's vote was a victory for residents who have fought a long battle against the three-story apartment complex they say is out of character with Safety Harbor and will clog local roads.
“You made the decision to keep it industrial and it was the right decision,” said Safety Harbor resident Les Buchanan, who commutes to Tampa to work. “It would be nice if we could keep some industrial here so we can work and live in our community.”
Since 2000, Pinellas has lost 320 acres of industrial land, mostly sold off by landowners to developers who converted it to homes, apartment blocks and retail plazas.
The county in 2006 introduced the policy to make that tougher, hoping to keep more employment centers in the county and avoid becoming a bedroom community. It set a target of adding 4,000 more industrial acres to provide an estimated 25,000 high-paying jobs for residents.
Commissioners also took a step Tuesday toward closing the loophole that only protects land in unincorporated areas, and moved ahead with new criteria for how they will review future proposals to develop homes or apartments on industrial sites. The guidelines state the county will preserve industrial sites that can support current or future development of factories, warehouses or office space. It also will consider whether properties are big enough for warehouses, if they have adequate transportation links, and how close they are to existing residential areas.
The new rules will apply countywide.
“I want business development in the county; I want it to be light industrial and I want people to be able to work in Pinellas County,” Commissioner Janet Long said.