CLEARWATER – Despite a “recommended order” from an administrative law judge and recommendations from the county attorney, Pinellas County Commissioners, sitting as the Countywide Planning Authority, unanimously voted no to amending the Future Land Use Plan for 34.6 acres located in Safety Harbor.
The reason was the same as the one given when the commission denied the request on May 7, 2013 - preservation of industrial land is of paramount importance.
The amendment would have changed the zoning designation from Industrial Limited, Residential/Office Limited, Residential Low, Residential Urban, Preservation and Water/Drainage Feature Overlay to Residential Medium, Residential/Office Limited and Water/Drainage Feature Overlay.
The southern 10-acres currently zoned Industrial Limited, fronts State Road 590. In May, the Firmenich citrus processing plant occupied the land and was in the process of relocating to Polk County. The rest of the property is unimproved and contains woods and some wetlands.
Approval of the rezoning, as recommended by the city of Safety Harbor, would have allowed redevelopment of the property and construction of a 246-unit apartment complex that would have fronted State Road 590 and an office building that would have fronted McMullen Booth Road.
The developer, The Richman Group of Florida, took exception to the CRA’s denial. The developer presented its case to Administrative Law Judge Bram D.E. Canter, who issued the “recommended order” Nov. 18 that Pinellas County approve the amendment.
Acknowledging that a second denial of the amendment could mean a lawsuit, commissioners stood firm, citing its initial reasoning – land for potential jobs is limited in Pinellas and preservation of industrial land is critical. At the time of the original decision, however, commissioners thought they were following a policy established in 2006.
Turns out, the policy never made it to the countywide rules, although many documents, such as Pinellas by design, talk about preserving industrial land. Apparently, staff determined that it was better to apply the policy to unincorporated areas and let municipalities manage their inventories of industrial-zoned properties.
Commissioner Ken Welch said he had understood that it was not necessary to add anything to the countywide rules to make preserving industrial lands a countywide policy. He called the matter a “technical glitch.” Commissioner Susan Latvala agreed.
“No one ever told us …,” she said.
“We’ve always voted to save industrial land,” said Commissioner John Morroni. “I was happy when the board voted unanimously on the issue (in 2006).”
Morroni said he would not change his vote.
Commissioner Janet Long said although she was not serving on the commission in 2006, sticking to the previous vote “was the right thing to do.”
Commissioner Norm Roche said it was a “classic case of the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law.”
Commission Chair Karen Seel said when she served a three-year stint as chair for Pinellas by Design, numerous meetings took place on how to create an economy for Pinellas.
“It’s important to have an environment that creates jobs,” she said.
Commissioner Charlie Justice went along with the majority and cautioned that the matter could raise concerns about the commission’s intent when they vote on issues.
“I think we’ll be back here again,” he said.
Amending the countywide rules
Commissioners seemed agreeable to recommendations from the Pinellas Planning Council to amend the countywide rules to include industrial land use policies. A second public hearing on the matter is scheduled on Jan. 28.
Michael Crawford, interim PPC director, said the amendment would clarify how the rules should be applied. It would remove the word consolidated since there was no intent to apply the rule only to consolidated land. The requirement for mass transit also would be removed from the definition of industrial lands.
Crawford outlined the PPC’s proposed criteria.
1. Target employment uses on the property would be weighed against proposed uses
2. Addition of the site’s ability to provide a buffer to surrounding property and traffic concerns
3. How the land use would relate to the surrounding area to allow for mixed uses, compatible uses
4. Consideration of infrastructure availability, such as water and sewer, and proximity to roadways
5. How well the proposed use fits in a redevelopment or special use plan.
The PPC currently is working on new land use categories that will reduce the number from 33 to 11, which could come before the commission by June. He said most municipalities in the county, with the exception of the beach towns, South Pasadena and Kenneth City, had criteria for industrial land.
Latvala said putting a policy for industrial land would set off a red flag in the future when developer’s approached cities about projects that would require rezoning of industrial property. She said it would save time and money.
Long said she was very “sensitive” to the need for collaboration with local governments.
“We are, after all, one big county,” she said.
“Local government is our partners that will carry this forward,” Crawford said.
Roche asked if adding the policy to the countywide rules now would adversely affect any possible future lawsuit by the Richman Group.
“I think it might help,” Seel said. “This was our intention.”