Pinellas commission denies plan to develop former golf course

The orange marker designates the location of the former Tides Golf Club. Pinellas County commissioners denied a request May 25 that would have allowed a residential development on the property.

LARGO — After listening to almost three hours of presentations May 25, Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously to deny a future land use map amendment, which ended the latest attempt to develop land formerly known as the Tides Golf Club in Seminole.

The owner of the property, TTGC LLC, had proposed to build a 273-unit residential development, called Restoration Bay, on 89 acres of the nearly 96-acre property at 11832 66th Ave. N. in Seminole. To do so, the company needed the county to approve a change to the future land use map from recreation/open space and preservation to residential low and preservation.

It was the first of what would have been two public hearings. If the amendment had been approved, it would have been transmitted to the state Land Planning Agency for review. After that review, a second public hearing would have been scheduled on the map amendment plus a zoning atlas amendment from residential agricultural to residential planned development, as well as a developer’s agreement and a master plan.

The Local Planning Agency unanimously recommended denial of the complete package on April 6 for the same reasons county staff recommended denial of the land use map amendment on May 25.

Glen Bailey, land use zoning manager, reviewed the history of the property, which was platted for 273 lots as part of Seminole Estates in 1926. In 1969, the owner requested and was granted a special exception to use the property as a golf course. In 1973, a clubhouse was built and the golf course opened.

In 1975, the property was designated as recreation/open space on the future land use map, and in 1992, the property owner requested that the 1926 residential plat be vacated, which was approved.

In 2013, a developer requested land use map and zoning changes to allow a development with 170 residential units. After the community rallied in opposition and county staff indicated the changes likely would not be approved, the developer withdrew the case. A new owner then bought the property and closed the golf course in 2018.

County Attorney Jewell White reminded commissioners at the beginning of the public hearing that their decision must only consider whether the land use change was consistent with the comprehensive plan. County staff then provided many reasons why it was not consistent.

Scott Swearingen, long-range planning manager, said it was staff’s responsibility to review amendments that affect the comprehensive plan using a holistic and balanced approach and to make sure the change doesn’t impact the county’s goals, policies and objectives.

Swearingen said the property was within areas of high vulnerability where no residential entitlements exists. He pointed to the requirement in the comprehensive plan to restrict and direct development away from vulnerable areas.

Vulnerabilities include being located in a 100-year floodplain, coastal storm area, storm surge area and an area that would be affected by sea level rise.

Swearingen said about 2/3 of the property is located in the 100-year floodplain. The future land use map category of residential low is appropriate in areas within the 100-year floodplain “only where preservation and recreation/open space uses are not feasible.”

The comprehensive plan also restricts development within coastal storm areas and prohibits land use amendments that would result in more than 5 dwelling units per acre. The developer’s proposal called for 3.2 units per acre.

Swearingen showed maps of the impact from storm surge on the property from a Category 1 and Category 3 hurricane.

The comprehensive plan directs the county to plan for sea level rise. Swearingen said projections show that much of the southern portion of the property would be affected by sea level rise in the coming decades, which would increase the vulnerability to storm surge.

In addition, the comprehensive plan addresses protection of open spaces and scenic vistas with “particular emphasis on coastal areas and lands surrounding parks and environmental lands.” The property is adjacent to Boca Ciega Millennium Park and Boca Ciega Bay. It encourages the retention of non-dedicated (private) recreation and open spaces.

Swearingen said it is difficult to support the “introduction of population density into a vulnerable coastal area where residential development had not been allowed for 46 years.”

During his presentation, land use attorney Joel Tew, argued that the developer’s plans were consistent with the comprehensive plan. He said that the property had always been zoned residential and would allow development of 48 homes without any changes.

He said when the county allowed the special exception for construction of the golf course, it was supposed to be temporary and the owner had been told he could come back in the future to have it changed to residential use.

He said the land was surrounded by residential uses and some had the same vulnerabilities as the property where his client wanted to build the 273 units. He said the land had always been intended to be a residential development and showed photos of how streets leading into the property lined up with existing roadways.

He said development of 3.2 units per acre was allowed by the comprehensive plan, and he accused staff of using a subjective view instead of a holistic view when reviewing the application.

He then pointed out what he called the “elephant in the room,” the retention of the land for open space/recreation.

He said requiring the property to be used only for open space/recreation put a “disproportionate burden” on the owner because it could only be used for the benefit of the public. He said the residents opposed to the development wanted the property to become a park. He said the county’s denial of the application would be a “pure land grab.”

Other representatives of the property owner pointed out the benefits of the development, including planned access to Boca Ciega Bay with a linear park (walking trail) around the property, storm water improvements, more land set aside for preservation and other environmental improvements.

A traffic study showed that the development would not adversely affect the area. The developer had agreed to make roadway improvements even when they weren’t required, Tew said.

Tew said the property owner had tried to operate the golf course successfully, but had failed. He objected to the county restricting how the property could be used.

About 20 people spoke in opposition, including attorneys hired by the residents and the Save the Tides group. Prior to the meeting, the county had received 286 letters, 42 postcards, a written petition with more than 19,500 signatures and 2,688 names on an online petition.

Many objected due to the affect the loss of greenspace would have on the community and the environment. Some were concerned about the impact of increased traffic. Many said the developer knew the status of the property when it was purchased and had taken a risk that the county would approve changes to allow construction of the 273 units, which were 100 more than the first proposed development that had failed.

They supported staff’s analysis of the vulnerabilities of the property. They said the improvements proposed by the development did not provide enough benefits. They encouraged commissioners to listen to staff.

Before the commission discussion, White again reminded commissioners that the vote was only on whether or not the request was consistent with the comprehensive plan.

“The decision is not about saving the Tides or deciding if it should be a golf course or about being offended about a developer making money,” she said. “Do you believe on balance that the request is consistent with the comprehensive plan.”

The commission voted 7-0 that is wasn’t and denied the request. The amendment will not be transmitted to the state. A companion item on the agenda to designate the land as a brownfield site was canceled.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.