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Indian Rocks Beach considers townhouses
City Commission approves development plan on first reading
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The land, as seen through an entryway, on which 50 new townhouses are proposed to be built.
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – The city of Indian Rocks Beach could get an economic shot in the arm if a proposed development of 50 new townhouses in the city is eventually approved.

At the commission meeting on Nov. 27, plans for the development were unveiled and commissioners approved first reading of the development plan that will give the developers impetus to move ahead with wrapping up their purchase of the property.

The property in question is at 601 Gulf Blvd., which at the moment is a vacant piece of property, left that way by a previous developer who failed in 2006. Back then approval was given for a 57-unit development but the economic downturn ended the project with the developer going out of business as did the first bank involved in the project.

Now the property is owned by the 1st Citizens Bank of Atlanta and is to be sold to the developer Taylor Morrison of Florida Inc., part of an international development company. City approval of the project is necessary for the deal to go through.

At first glance when the commissioners spoke of the plans, approval seemed like a slam-dunk. However, once residents who live near the property began speaking, it appeared anything but a sure thing.

First up was Toby O’Brien, who actually lives on the last remaining house on the property. O’Brien and his wife Betty owned the home prior to the last proposed development. Back then they agreed to an exchange. They would sell their home in exchange for a new house to be built. They signed the deal and got cash to buy the land on which their new home would be built. Then the project went bust and that, according to O’Brien, is when everything fell off the rails.

“We got the land, but no house,” he told the Commission. “We’re still living in our old house but it isn’t ours anymore. The developer is out of business, the first bank is out of business and as far as this bank is concerned we’re just tenants. Nobody is taking responsibility for building us that promised house. We’re not going away.”

O’Brien said the family has hired an attorney to deal with the matter and legal action is ongoing but they aren’t happy.

“We’re pro-IRB. But no one has made an effort to build us our new home or give us our property back. Betty and I entered into the exchange agreement and we’ve kept our part of the bargain; we expect some recourse.”

Devon Rushnell, a Taylor Morrison vice president and the man responsible for putting the deal together, said he was unaware of the O’Brien situation until recently.

“When we entered into the agreement with the bank we were told there was a tenant issue that would be resolved,” he said. “We didn’t know in fact there were homeowners involved. But we won’t sign the final papers until this issue is resolved through the bank. This stuff cannot stay outstanding, but I don’t see how we end up with it.”

Two residents of adjacent condominiums also spoke against moving too quickly with the project. Greg Van Bebber questioned the site plans.

“They have completely surrounded us,” he said. “How are fire trucks and ambulances and garbage trucks going to turn around? They have shuffled roads around. We want to be included; nobody tells us what they are doing.”

Resident Deborah Focke was concerned with access. Without getting access through the new development, they would be cut off entirely.

“There are legal issues here,” she said. “There are property rights issues. We have retained counsel to make sure we’re protected.”

She intimated court action could stall the project for as long as five years.

City Attorney Maura Kiefer said the developers have guaranteed there will be access through the development, and the city has made sure of it in the development plan. “There are many contingencies to make sure all those things happen,” she said. “There will be access; I don’t know what else I can say.”

Kiefer pointed out that the legal dispute involving the O’Briens is something that does not involve the city in any way.

All this moved Commissioner Cookie Kennedy, obviously emotional, to say how upset she was with what she’d just heard.

“I don’t understand how these people didn’t have a chance to talk to the residents,” she said. “I’m very upset about it and I’m not having anything to do with it until this is all worked out. This is not appropriate and I’m very unhappy, what the O’Brien’s have gone through is awful.”

Vice Mayor Terry Hamilton-Wollin joined in.

“A small town is a big family and here in Mayberry it is true. I’m behind Cookie and I’m not going anywhere with this,” she said.

Commissioners Phil Hanna and Jim Labadie agreed, while saying they supported the project in principle.

The project, when completed in two years time, will bring the city an estimated $30,000 a year in property taxes. It will consist of 50 townhomes on 4.13 acres. All the homes will be three-bedroom, three-bathroom units and each about 2,000 square feet. They will sell in the low $300,000 range, according to Rushnell. He told the commissioners his company, Taylor Morrison, has extensive holdings in the United States and Canada and last year had $1.5 billion in gross revenue.

When Commissioner Labadie asked how committed his company was to finishing what they start, Rushnell said the entire deal will be in cash.

“There will be no debt,” he said. “We’re paying cash up front and will pay cash all through the construction period. So we’ll be committed to finishing because the only way we’ll make our money back is to sell the homes.”

Commissioners did, in the end, unanimously approve first reading of the development plan with second reading at the next meeting on Dec. 19 at 7 p.m. The regular Dec. 11 meeting was changed to Dec. 19 to give all concerned time to work out their differences. In fact the developers and residents held an impromptu meeting outside city hall while inside the meeting continued.

Major change in store for intersection

If approved by the Florida Department of Transportation, there could be a major structural change to the main intersection at Gulf Boulevard and Walsingham Road. It is all in an effort to make the intersection more pedestrian friendly.

The development of the small “pocket” park at the old Schmidt property and the opening of the new boat docks at Keegan Clair Park mean more people on foot will be attracted to the area. And most will have to cross Walsingham and Gulf Boulevard. Consultant Jerry Dabkowski recommended to the commission that the right hand turning lane on Gulf Boulevard going east onto Walsingham be eliminated, thus forcing drivers making that turn to come to a stop before proceeding. He also recommended a small island separating the lanes be taken away giving pedestrians a straight walk across the intersection in a less dangerous fashion. Commissioner Labadie agreed with the plan.

“As it is now, it is a death trap,” he said.

Commissioners unanimously agreed with the proposal and it will now go to FDOT for approval. City Manager Chuck Coward said the project has been budgeted and suggested that it will carry considerable weight in getting FDOT’s approval.

Upcoming events

Mayor R.B. Johnson reminded commissioners of a number of city events coming up that should be noted. On Thursday, Nov. 29, at 7 p.m. there is the community forum on law enforcement at City Hall. On Friday, Nov. 30 the annual tree-lighting ceremony will be held at the 12th Avenue Park. On Sunday, Dec. 2 the annual holiday parade begins at the Holiday Inn and will wind its way through town. The annual holiday boat parade will be held on Dec. 15. Then on Jan. 29 a community meeting seeking input on the design of the pocket park is slated at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.
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