Belleair Town Hall was packed as residents showed up to weigh in on Morton Plant’s plan to build a parking lot in one of their neighborhoods.
BELLEAIR – Town commissioners agreed with residents who turned out in force Oct. 16 to oppose a move by Morton Plant Hospital to create a parking lot on land that is occupied by five homes to the east of the hospital.
The Belleair commission voted 5-0 against the plan. The hospital owns the houses at 1, 2, 3 and 4 Druid Place and the property located at Druid Pass.
The meeting began with a presentation by Clearwater attorney Ed Armstrong, who pointed out to commissioners that the hospital had met all the criteria as set out in the town’s comprehensive plan, land use development and site plan requirements. Then Morton Plant President Glenn Waters outlined the reason for needing the parking lot.
He said the hospital was embarking on a four-year, $200 million project that would see a four-story tower built on the east side of the main hospital. The expansion would create 200 new private hospital rooms as well as new operating rooms and other amenities. To accommodate that growth, the new 92-space parking lot was required.
Waters also outlined how the hospital exceeded regulations in proposing a 75-foot setback from the nearest residents, a 6-foot wall and extensive landscaping to make the lot as unobtrusive to the neighbors as possible. He also noted that all the large trees would remain and the entrance to the new lot would be through the main hospital campus and not on the Belleair side.
Then the objectors took the floor. Resident Diane Campbell-Hodill suggested the hospital was not showing residents proper respect.
“The closer the hospital comes to our homes the further our property values drop,” she said. “They are encroaching on our quality of life; Morton Plant keeps taking from us.”
Resident Bob Cullen said “after a day at work I expect to come home and enjoy peace and quiet. If you let the cat out of the bag with this request, the door will be open and there is nothing that can stop them from continuing to move into our community.”
Resident Kathleen Roach said the commission had to discourage the hospital from continuing to buy up property.
“The hospital has to understand that to expand in Pinellas County means to go up,” she said. “There is just no land left to go out.”
Resident Tim Mariani ended a lengthy presentation against the proposal by asking if the parking lot was worth changing the land use regulations of the town.
“There is nothing to keep the hospital from developing that land in the future,” he said. “I ask you to preserve the land and deny the request.”
Resident Tom Nash had an opposite view. Identifying himself as a board member of the hospital he said he supported what the hospital was trying to do.
“Take the emotion out of this,” he told commissioners. “Follow the law, the hospital is entitled to even more than they want.”
Another resident and one time chairman of the hospital board, Larry Morgan also supported the hospital’s plans.
“The hospital tries very hard at being a good citizen,” he said. “They have gone beyond the call of duty on this one.”
Armstrong concluded the public discussion over the issue by reminding the commission that it should focus on the issue at hand.
“What’s in focus is a 1.8 acre site for surface parking,” he said. “This is a property rights case, the code is specific, we met your criteria, experts have testified to that. The objections tonight have been based on emotion and very little fact.”
All that took more than three hours. It took only minutes for commissioners to vote on Vice Mayor Stephen Fowler’s motion to deny the request.
“I’m sensitive to the needs of Morton Plant, but the people of Belleair have elected me to do what’s best for them and I cannot support this,” Mayor Gary Katica said.
Once the 5-0 vote was cast the meeting adjourned. The rest of the lengthy agenda was tabled and will be dealt with at the next Commission meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 7, at 5:30 p.m.