Heavy equipment is hard at work in the first stages of the 50-unit townhouse development at 601 Gulf Blvd.
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – It began with commissioners considering what should have been a routine bit of housekeeping, but it quickly turned into a heated discussion over the loss of large oak trees and a commission that, as a whole, is not happy with a developer.
At issue is the new 50-unit townhouse development at 601 Gulf Blvd. in Indian Rocks Beach. The developer is Taylor Morrison Florida Inc.
The company took over the property held by another developer who ran out of money before anything got off the ground. That developer, however, left angry residents behind, some of whom sold their homes for a promise that a new one would be built. When the previous developer left, the promises went too. So when Taylor Morrison took over there were some fences to mend.
Attorney Caleb Grimes, back in the spring, told the Indian Rocks Beach City Commission that he would meet with the residents and hear their concerns and work things out. For the most part, the company adjusted its plans to meet some of the residents’ concerns. Some, but not all, and that is where things got heated at the commission meeting on Dec. 10.
The routine business was a small land swap between the city and the developer. The city would give Taylor Morrison two small pieces of land in the middle of its four acres in exchange for an easement along 7th Avenue and Gulf Boulevard bordering the property. Commissioners had already agreed to the swap and were getting ready for the formal vote when resident Anny Tarrant got up to speak.
“There were four live oak trees and one Jacaranda on the property,” she said. “The oak trees were 100 years old; they were big. Now there are no trees left. How did this happen?”
Tarrant said she understood the developer might have needed to cut down a tree for something specific, but not all of them.
“First they cut down one tree and I thought, OK. Then they cut down a second tree. I go to work and when I come home they are all gone, gone. They cut down a 100-year-old tree to make room for a dumpster,” she said.
Grimes, the attorney, said he met at great length with the residents and dealt with some right of way issues, but nothing about the trees.
“Our development agreement says nothing about trees,” he said. “Our landscape plan has been approved. We have been working with the neighbors and we hope to have a nice project there soon.”
Taylor Morrison’s Project Manager Alex Azan told the commission he understands how the residents feel.
“It makes no sense to remove trees that do not need to be removed, just for the sake of it,” he said. “In this case we had drainage issues that had to be looked after, parking and so on. We did save one or two trees and I understand people are upset but we followed code and ordinance requirements.”
Commissioners weren’t buying the company’s arguments. Commissioner Jim Labadie was first up.
“You took down a tree for a dumpster. That isn’t something good community neighbors do,” he said. “It is very disappointing.”
Commissioner Terry Hamilton-Wollin was even stronger in her rebuke.
“I’m sitting here stewing about those trees,” she said. “Years ago they were threatening to take down three big oak trees in Chic-a-Si Park. I told them I would chain myself to those trees to stop them. They relented and those trees are still there today. I don’t understand how the city staff let this happen, I am grievously disappointed.”
Commissioner Cookie Kennedy added to the anger.
“Here we have a room full of people who don’t usually complain about things, but here they are upset,” she said. “Taking down a tree for a dumpster is horrible. There has to be some common sense. This is not a good addition to our community; I don’t know what else to say.”
Grimes repeated his promise to work with the neighbors in the future just as they did in the past.
“We worked long and hard with the neighbors,” he said. “We spent a lot of time reaching the agreement. We want happy neighbors; we don’t want people upset.”
Azan said it wasn’t true that one of the trees was taken down for a dumpster and it was his intention to see that future issues are dealt with quickly.
Once again he was chided by Labadie.
“The idea is to imagine that you are living here in this community,” he said. “Then when you build something you build it because it will be pleasing to you and your neighbors.”
Mayor R.B. Johnson said he felt betrayed by what happened with the trees.
“Back when we first talked with you we were happy you came to town. We didn’t want much from you,” he said. “I do recall I mentioned twice about saving the trees. I asked you if you could find a way to work around the trees. You didn’t try; you didn’t find a way to save the trees. Instead, you came in for permits to cut them down. There was a breakdown here at city hall, a breakdown in communication. We were trying to establish goodwill with you and it has crumbled, I wish it hadn’t.”
Johnson’s recollection was correct. Back on March 14 the Belleair Bee reported an exchange between him and Attorney Grimes. At that meeting, in response to a question by Johnson, Grimes said it was the developer’s intent to keep the shade trees, which currently exist near where the proposed swimming pool and clubhouse will be built.
As the discussion continued, it was discovered that Indian Rocks Beach does not have a tree preservation ordinance. City Manager Gregg Mims said before anyone threw blame at the city staff they had to realize there was nothing staff could have done.
“They came in for a permit and there is nothing a staff member could have done, legally, to refuse that permit,” he said.
Mims suggested in the future the commission might want to consider implementing some sort of preservation ordinance so something similar won’t happen again.
That didn’t appease Johnson, who was clearly angry over the whole issue. He ended the discussion with a warning to Taylor Morrison.
“We’re going to be watching you with hawk’s eyes,” he said. “We don’t want to feel like we’re getting run over.”
Despite their anger, commissioners then went ahead the unanimously approved the land swap in the development.
Then there was a touch of irony as the meeting continued. Next on the agenda was an ordinance eliminating the Indian Rocks Beach’s Tree Board. Mims explained that the Tree board hadn’t been active in some time and there were no members on it at all. He said the Board, as constituted, would not have been involved in the issue with Taylor Morrison.
The commission unanimously voted to eliminate the Tree Board.