The Tarpon Springs City Commission voted Friday to move forward with a planned residential community on 74 acres near the Anclote River. Environmentalists hope the land, which they once blocked Walmart from building on, can still be saved.
One month to the day after the city started the quasi-judicial hearing process, commissioners voted 3-1 to rezone the land and approve plans for the proposed 404-unit Anclote Harbor residential community.
The vote came after city staff; the applicant, Houston-based the Morgan Group; and the Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs, a group opposing the project, made final statements. But first there was public comment. This time it came in the form of more than 100 emails read into record over the course of three hours. They came from residents of Tarpon who didn’t want to see more development in the city.
Vice-mayor Jacob Karr continued to raise concern over parts of the application, despite voting yes, but said that’s due to the nature of the hearing.
“Although I don’t agree with all parts of the application it’s not really how I feel,” Karr said. “It’s the evidence that’s placed before us.”
City Attorney Thomas Trask told commissioners before the hearing continued the onus was on them to approve the plans if the applicant met the city’s requirements.
“At a quasi-judicial hearing it is not the board’s function to make law, but rather apply law that has already been established,” Trask said.
But not all commissioners were convinced that was the case.
Commissioner Costa Vatakiotis was the lone dissenting vote.
“Based on the testimony, it’s astonishing that 404 residences – upwards of 10 percent of the city’s population,” he said. “That the applicant and the staff would consider single access on a failed level of service highway without signalization and without giving second access any consideration.”
The city would typically require a second access point for any development over 50 units. Part of the Morgan Group’s application is a waiver of that requirement. City planners okayed it, but commissioners added building a second road in and out as a condition. The only access point in the plan is along U.S. 19. A second road could be built there, but commissioners have pushed for access on the east side of the property, along Hayes road.
But that would bring untold destruction to the property’s wetlands. There’s about more than 21 acres of wetlands on the property. With once access point, only about half an acre would be disturbed.
Even the Morgan Group’s attorney, Ed Armstrong was skeptical of the road.
“A second access point to Hayes Road requires a significant destruction of wetlands on the site,” he said. “We designed the site to minimize impact on the wetlands.”
Then there’s the literal roadblocks of money, traffic studies and coordination with Pinellas County who actually owns the road.
“Far as I’m concerned there’s still loose ends,” Commissioner Vatakiotis said. “And now we’re facing a study for a secondary access. I’m not comfortable with this at all and I just want to state that for the record.”
‘We will win’
In addition to the wetlands, there’s a significant portion of uplands, thousands of trees, bald eagle nests, gopher tortoises and other properties that have had environmentalists fighting over the land for years.
About 15 years ago, Chris Hrabovsky and others fought Walmart from developing on the land. They’ve been known as Friends of the Anclote River and other names. Currently, they’ve gone by Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs.
Hrabovsky said the vote was expected. But the fight to save the land from development is far from over. He said the group is mobilizing to block development and is confident they can keep the project from moving forward.
“Yes,” Hrabovsky said. “We will win.”
Hrabovsky added the group is looking into grant programs and available money to buy the land and turn it into a preserve and park.
“If we can negotiate with Walmart, maybe they can build a little good faith with the world and do the right thing by giving us a cut-rate deal,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re gonna be sitting on that empty parcel of land until the end of time.”
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