CLEARWATER — There are a few development battles that still sting for neighborhood advocates like Carl Schrader.

An epic loss came in 2019, when the Community Development Board approved a seven-story, 80-unit condo on Edgewater Drive proposed by Valor Capital. Neighbors fought it, saying the structure was blatantly out of character with their surrounding one- and two-story homes. But the board approved the project with increased height, an administrative judge rejected residents’ appeal and the condo is now under construction.

“We just always feel like it’s already been decided and it’s already done when we have an opportunity to speak,” about a project, said Schrader, president of the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition.

The age-old battle of neighborhoods versus development is nothing new, but it has been an underlying current in the March 15 election, where six candidates running for two City Council seats have discussed protecting neighborhoods in their own ways.

Aaron Smith-Levin, who defected from the Church of Scientology in 2014, has centered his platform for the open Seat 5 on fighting alleged church abuses and addressing its impact on downtown real estate. But he said he was also inspired to run following the City Council’s 2018 approval of two self-storage warehouses where the code did not allow them, including one in his Skycrest neighborhood.

At a recent candidate forum, the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition asked candidates how they would address the perception that the city has too freely granted flexibility from the code to accommodate developers’ plans.

Smith-Levin proposed the city should add three seats to the seven-member Community Development Board. The local planning body has authority to grant variances on certain aspects like height and setbacks but makes recommendations to the council about more complex rezoning and land use changes. Smith-Levin said the additional members should be lay people, “who are not developers or attorneys or lobbyists” to balance out the professional appointments the council makes to the board.

“If I win a seat on the council, we will have a council that is not in the pocket of developers,” Smith-Levin said.

Artist and activist Lina Teixeira, also running for Seat 5, said she supports adding seats to the board to include more diverse backgrounds. She also said the city should provide more notice to neighbors before a development comes to the board for a vote.

She called the development code, written in 1999, “obsolete” and said it needs to be overhauled because “it is no longer working for the world that we live in right now.”

Jonathan Wade, also running for Seat 5, said he wants to have more meetings with residents to gather feedback before the council decides on development issues.

“The city has gotten it right on occasions and they have gotten it wrong on many occasions, so we’ve just got to be consistent,” said Wade, a pastor and longtime activist in North Greenwood.

Council member David Allbritton, who is running for a second term in Seat 4, noted that he’s open to changes to improve the system but that the code provides flexibility for a reason. He said the city gives “everyone the right to build according to our development code.”

“If you take flexibility away from everyone, you’re going to find it more problematic when an average citizen wants to get something done to complete their project, so be careful what you wish for,” said Allbritton, a retired contractor.

Community activist Maranda Douglas, who is challenging Allbritton in Seat 4, said there should be more buffers between neighborhoods and development. She noted her advocacy against a 2020 referendum that would have allowed a developer to build a light industrial complex on the city-owned Landings Golf Club.

Sixty-one percent of voters rejected the proposal. Allbritton supported the light industrial plan, which was also backed by the city’s economic development and housing department for the proposed jobs and stimulus to the local economy.

“I think we could also increase early and minimum notice times so that neighbors can get engaged in these conversations and really have a platform to address their concerns in the community,” Douglas said.

Gerry Lee, a retired technology manager also running for Seat 4, said he doesn’t support giving businesses an advantage over ordinary residents. He also noted his disagreement with City Council’s approval of two storage warehouses in 2018 in areas where the code did not allow them.

Meanwhile, council members are having a philosophical debate of their own about the Community Development Board.

Planning and Development Director Gina Clayton asked the council last week to postpone their vote to fill three vacancies on the board. The city received eight applications, but none had the backgrounds of the architect, civil engineer and real estate attorney vacating the seats.

The four remaining members include a construction manager, environmental engineer, real estate broker and an employment attorney. Clayton said she wanted more time to advertise the vacancies in professional organizations and on Linkedin to attract more candidates.

But what kind of background the candidates should have was hotly debated.

Council members Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker said they want to appoint more lay people to the board who are not attorneys, developers or other real estate types.

The board is tasked with applying code to projects to determine whether they are appropriate. Beckman said in that case, the city should use more lay people to make development decisions in the same way courts use lay people in juries to interpret law.

“Why do they have to have that professional background if all they’re doing is interpreting code?” Beckman said. “It comes in when there’s judgement with questions about flexibility or interpretation of (standards like) ‘must conform to the aesthetics of the surrounding area’.... Those things are where we need everyday people to be able to look at things like that.”

Mayor Frank Hibbard noted the complexities of the applications that the board reviews, making it important for members to have expertise in fields related to construction and development. He pushed back against the idea that architects and engineers can not simultaneously care about neighborhoods and the environment.

“I want it to be a diverse board, but I also want it to be filled with people that actually understand blueprints and design and density and intensity and massing and traffic and all of the ramifications that come with that,” Hibbard said.

The code states the council should seek community development board members with diverse economic, social and professional representation and that those members shall include people experienced in fields of “architecture, planning, landscape architecture, engineering, construction, planning and land use law and real estate.”

“We need to follow our code,” Clayton said in a recent interview. “And if City Council wants to have a different kind of makeup, then the code should be amended.”