LARGO – With a 6-1 vote June 4, Largo commissioners reversed the city’s Planning Board decision, allowing for a vacant church to be converted into a 75-bed assisted living facility.
The new facility at 1071 Lake Ave. NE., would be called The Lake House. Mark Gainer of Rosewood House II appealed the Planning Board’s decision to the commission, requesting again that the city allow him to renovate and expand the existing building. Per the city’s code, any assisted living facility serving more than 14 clients requires city approval.
Commissioners expressed dismay that the Planning Board didn’t record much explanation as to why three of its five members voted against the project. City staff reported that there was no discussion before the vote.
“I don’t really understand where the planning board was coming from on this,” Commissioner Curtis Holmes said.
The board stated that the project did not meet the city’s requirements for assisted living facilities. The church property currently is zoned institutional, but is surrounded by land that is zoned residential-suburban.
Commissioner Robert Murray cited the city’s restrictions for a Class 2 use – what an assisted living facility is in this case. The code states that Class 2 developments “are not allowed on local and minor collector roads,” which make up most of the neighborhood surrounding property.
“So I don’t understand how we can have a Class 2 use on that piece of particular property,” he said. “I can see how this could be denied.”
Principal planner Christine McLachlan pointed out that the facility’s address is on Lake Avenue, which is not a minor road.
City Attorney Alan Zimmet explained that the code in question “could be clearer,” but staff had recommended approval of the project based on how the city historically had interpreted the code.
“We need to address this when we review the code,” Zimmet said. “Until we had this discussion a couple of weeks ago, it really hadn’t come up.”
Murray also said the assisted living facility would draw more traffic to the neighborhood.
“Even though it was previously a church, typically those have higher traffic volumes at certain times, certainly more than an ALF does,” McLachlan said, clarifying city staff’s position on the matter. “We consider this to be a reduction from that previous use in traffic.”
Commissioners also speculated whether representatives from the nearby retirement community, The Palms, had any influence on the decision to deny the request. But the majority argued that the 75-bed facility was not a true competition for The Palms, neither in size nor in its targeted clients. The Lake House would serve residents who paid through Medicaid, offering affordable monthly fees.
Commissioner Harriet Crozier said the project was addressing the needs of the community. She pointed out that the recently completed Pinellas Heights project, providing affordable housing for seniors, was already 100 percent leased.
“There is a big need for this,” Crozier said. “I see this as an important venture for us to approve.”
Mayor Pat Gerard, who is the chief operating officer for Family Resources, agreed.
“I know that from my work in my other life, that the need for ALF beds right now is pretty high,” she said. “The recent changes in Medicaid are forcing a lot more people out of nursing homes and into ALF, for which we don’t have beds.”
The commission did decide to impose three conditions on their approval. The project must not have an impervious surface ratio of more than 40 percent of the entire property; developers must remove 0.7 acres of asphalt in place of landscaping, and the building must not be above two stories high.
Murray was the sole vote against the property. He said he wasn’t opposed to the idea of a new assisted living facility, but couldn’t support the project based on his interpretation of the city’s code for such facilities.