Expect the fight over building a controversial apartment complex on the edge of Safety Harbor to heat up again now that a judge has recommended the project be approved.
In May, Pinellas County commissioners unanimously shot down a needed zoning change for the Richman Group to turn a 34-acre swath of industrial land into a 246-unit apartment complex with 25,000 square feet of office space.
The West Palm Beach developer’s plans to develop the property at McMullen-Booth Road and State Road 590, owned by fragrance manufacturer Firmenich, have drawn considerable opposition from neighbors and sparked a heated debate in town.
The Safety Harbor City Commission approved the proposal in February, to the chagrin of dozens of residents in the area skirting the site, who fear traffic and bad tenants might hurt their quality of life. Those residents staged vocal protests and packed City Hall hearings to fight the plan.
Pinellas County commissioners heard from those residents as well and rejected the proposal, albeit on different grounds.
Commissioners rejected the apartment project because the county is trying to preserve industrial lands to recruit employers, such as the numerous technology and defense firms that already employ thousands of people in Pinellas.
The Richman Group appealed the county’s decision.
Monday, Administrative law Judge Bram Canter recommended commissioners approve the project, in their capacity as the Countywide Planning Authority.
In his opinion, Canter said that the county’s preference of preserving industrial lands was not a suitable reason for denying the Richman Group’s project. While the county has a resolution on the books that discusses the need to reserve industrial land for target employers, it’s not part of Pinellas’ countywide development rules and, therefore, can’t be used as a criteria for evaluating proposals, the judge wrote.
Canter’s ruling has been drawing reactions from those who support and oppose the Richman Group’s project.
“Was I disappointed? Yeah, I was,” said Safety Harbor resident Steve Rosenthal, one of the plan’s opponents. “Was I shocked? No. Law is always under interpretation, and I think that’s how the appeal went.”
City officials, who are counting on the project to spark the local economy, cheered the decision and said the Richman Group’s plans fit better within Safety Harbor than an industrial tenant.
“A residential designation for that piece of property that reserves [nearly] 50 percent of green space is much more compatible with Safety Harbor,” said Mayor Joseph Ayoub.
The County Commission will take up the matter again, though a hearing date has yet to be set. Rejecting the proposal yet again would put the county at risk of a lawsuit. If commissioners approve a zoning change for the property, the proposal will go back to the City of Safety Harbor for final approval, where it likely will pass easily.
Opponents say they will rekindle their fight, again speaking passionately at hearings about the nature of their small waterfront community and waving signs at the intersection of McMullen-Booth Road and State Road 590.
“We’re going to have to rally up the troops again,” Rosenthal said. “We’re pitching full steam ahead. The throttle’s on full steam. Our feelings haven’t changed, our facts haven’t changed.”