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County says no to ALF on East Lake Road
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Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Scaled down plans for an assisted living facility on East Lake Road include a one-story, 35-foot facility with 68 beds.
CLEARWATER – Despite support from groups previously in opposition, Pinellas County Commissioners put an end to plans to build an assisted living facility on East Lake Road.

The commission voted 5-2 Feb. 25 against a requested zoning and land use change to institutional for 3.36 acres on the east side of East Lake Road about 640 feet south of Crescent Oaks Boulevard. Commissioners Susan Latvala and Janet Long voted in favor of the change.

The 3.36 acres is part of a 22-acre tract rezoned in 2013 with approval for a special exception to build a 5,000 square foot office/medical complex. The property owner requested another zoning change to allow construction of a 68-bed assisted living facility and agreed to a condition that an ALF be the only allowable use of the site.

The applicant agreed to the condition to try to appease neighbors who feared the facility might be used for activities such as drug rehabilitation in the future. Adding a specific use to the zoning would require the commission’s approval for any change.

County staff had recommended approval with four conditions:

1 – The ALF had to conform to the building elevations included in the application.

2 – The ALF could not exceed 68 beds.

3 – Additional landscaping would be placed along the frontage on East Lake Road.

4 – The use of the site would be limited to an ALF.

Peter Pensa represented the applicant at the Feb. 25 meeting and said a number of changes had been made since the original application was filed. He said plans called for a one-story, 35-foot facility with 68 beds instead of a three-story, 47-foot high ALF with 84 beds.

He said the applicant had met with neighbors, who opposed the facility, and made “considerable amendments” to the original application to address their concerns.

Commissioner Ken Welch asked if the facility was compatible with the East Lake Tarpon Community Overlay. The overlay requires that development fit the community’s characteristic land use types, density, height and scale. Gordon Beardslee, Planning Department administrator, said the amended plan was a better fit with the overlay, but admitted it was a “judgment call when looking at scale.”

Commissioner Norm Roche asked about the impact on the wellhead protection zone. Beardslee said the facility would need a permit for any activity that would affect the wellhead. Commissioner John Morroni asked if East Lake Road could handle the extra traffic. Beardslee said the ALS should generate less traffic than an office/medical building, an approved for the site.

Pensa said the property owner had intended to build a medical facility but had been approached by Watercrest Senior Living Group about putting in a facility that specialized in caring for people with memory loss. He said the property owner thought the facility would be “good for the neighborhood.”

He said meetings were scheduled with county staff and interested parties including the Council of North County Neighborhoods about the proposal. Pensa said the application had done what he could to be “a good neighbor.”

The building was redesigned at an angle to reduce its frontage and line of sight on East Lake Road. Employee parking was moved to the rear of the facility. The driveway was relocated to share an existing right of way with an adjacent veterinarian’s office – a detail that still under negotiation and a concern of at least one commissioner.

Pensa said the goal was to make East Lake Tarpon not only a fun and safe place to grow up but also a place to grow old where friends and family could come and visit.

Don Ewing, president of the Council of North County Neighborhoods, said initially CNCN had opposed the facility due to the scale, but had since decided to support the land use change.

“We met in a public meeting and labored at great length” over the decision, Ewing said.

He said the smaller facility constructed back from the road with landscaping to fit in honored the overlay’s objectives.

“It’s a suitable plan,” he said.

A number of people spoke in support of the Watercrest facility and the importance of providing safe places for people with memory loss. One man talked about had difficult it had been to find a suitable ALF for a loved one. Another talked about the long drive to visit his family member. Member of Crescent Oaks subdivision also spoke in support.

However, scaled-down plans and need wasn’t enough to sway residents of Cypress Run. The homeowner association hired attorney Michael Foley to make their case. Foley said the opposition wasn’t the “typical not in my backyard” case but more to do with the size and scope of the project and a request for land use and zoning that did not exist.

“Cypress Run is upset and rightly so,” he said.

He said his clients wanted to protect the community overlay.

“Cutting down is not enough,” he said. “It’s still too big for the area.”

He talked about the size, the potential traffic and an increased need for emergency medical services.

“The applicant knew what it (the land) could be used for when he bought it, but now he wants something else,” Foley said.

He asked what would happen if the ALF went out of business.

“They would have to come back to you (commission) to change, but there would be less of a burden because the land use and zoning is already changed,” he said.

He said his clients asked only three things of the commission - “Respect the overlay. Respect the residents. Deny the request.”

Latvala pointed out that the overlay didn’t say that there would be no changes in land use within the area.

Beardslee agreed, adding that the overlay created specify policies to help make land use and zoning changes. He said East Lake and Tarpon spent two years working on the overlay for an area that runs from Curlew Road to Pasco County and from East Lake Tarpon to Hillsborough County.

The overlay “helps guide decisions but it doesn’t freeze things in place,” he said.

“I’m very conflicted,” Latvala said. “This is a quasi-judicial matter where we listen to findings of fact, but this is about dueling neighborhoods,” she said.
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