County Commission’s first in-person meeting in months includes 14 public hearings

Laura Muller talks to Pinellas County Commissioners during a July 21 public hearing about two vacation requests. Commissioners granted one of the two. The meeting was the first in-person one since April 7 and took place in the Magnolia Room at the Extension Office in Largo to allow enough space for social distancing.

LARGO — Pinellas County Commission’s July 21 meeting was a long one. It also was the first meeting held in-person since April 7.

Despite the risk of hosting a public gathering, commissioners considered it a necessity to allow the public to appear in person for the many hearings that have been postponed and deferred for months.

Fourteen hearings were on the agenda beginning at 6 p.m. The meeting started at 2 p.m. and took place in the Magnolia Room in the Extension Office, 12520 Ulmerton Road in Largo, as well as virtually through the Zoom platform for those who preferred that method.

Commissioner Karen Seel participated virtually. The other commissioners and staff were socially distanced and wore masks when they weren’t speaking.

The public hearings began with agenda item 31. It was a case for the Countywide Planning Authority, which is the board of county commissioners. The request from the city of Clearwater for a plan map amendment would allow a recently annexed parcel of land to become part of the city’s designated Highway 19 North Multimodal corridor. It was approved unanimously.

Item 32 was also a case for the planning authority. The city of Largo requested an amendment of the Countywide Plan Map from public/semi-public to retail and services on 1.06 acres at 2188 58th St. N. The request was approved unanimously. The purpose was to allow an outdated convenience store to update nonconforming structures.

Item 33 was another case for the planning authority from the city of Largo. The request, which was approved unanimously, was to amend the Countywide Plan Map on 5.01 acres at 2050 58th St. N. from public/semi-public to residential low medium to allow vacant property, which had once been an assisted living facility, to be used as a single-family development.

Item 34 was the last for the planning authority. It was the first of two public hearings on amending the Countywide Rules to restore the residential rural category on the future land use map.

The next items, 35-44, were heard by the commission. Item 35 took the most time of any that night. It was a request from Christopher D. Muller, Laura T. Muller, Raymond B. Bennett and Debra Schaefer to vacate a 80-foot right-of-way, known as Illinois Avenue in Palm Harbor, lying between the petitioners’ property and adjacent properties to the north, as well as a 20-foot alley lying between two parcels owned by Christopher and Laura Muller.

Staff had no objection to the request to vacate the 20-foot alley; however, the recommendation was denial of the 80-foot right-of-way for a variety of reasons, including the need for a utility and drainage easement over the entire area.

The other reason was that the Schaefer property is currently non-conforming due to lot width and the vacation would not resolve the situation. The bigger problem seemed to be the “extensive encroachments” onto Illinois Avenue and Ninth Street by the Mullers.

County staff has been working with the Mullers for 12 years to get them to remove landscape improvements beyond their property that also impedes access to the Pinellas Trail. Since the first request to remove the private property, additional landscaping has been done.

The Mullers are constructing a home and staff has made removal of the encroachments as a condition to grant a certificate of occupancy for the residence that will be completed sometime after the first of the year.

After a lengthy discussion, including past history and a review of reasons the county could have use of the 80-foot right-of-way in the future, as well as the need to access existing utilities, as well as objections from neighbors, the commission approved vacation of the 20-foot alley.

As far of the 80-foot right-of-way, Commissioner Ken Welch summed it up by saying the petitioners were asking for forgiveness rather than asking for permission prior to encroaching on public property. He and the other commissioners agreed that it was best to withhold the certificate of occupancy for the Mullers’ new home until the problem was resolved, including making sure access to the Pinellas Trail was restored.

Staff agreed to keep working with the Mullers to try to find a solution, including alternates for drainage.

Commission Chair Pat Gerard ask staff to make sure the county wouldn’t have to bear the cost of removing all the landscaping if there was a need to access utilities.

“I have a problem with rewarding bad behavior,” she said.

The next case has similar aspects. John Skopos requested vacation of a 12-foot-wide alley west of Desoto Boulevard and east of Moss Rose Avenue in Crystal Beach Heights. If granted, the vacation would apply to the entire alley within the block. Staff supported the request.

Skopos wants to put in a swimming pool. Staff photos showed that private improvements had been made within the alley; however, they were made prior to Skopos moving in and did not cause any problem with access.

Utilities and Public Works would retain a full-width drainage and utility easement. Skopos will build his pool outside the alley. The request was granted unanimously.

Commissioners also unanimously approved a petition by Lazarus Paskalidis, Eugina Paskalidis and Sakaratis Paskalidis to vacate a 10-foot-wide drainage and/or utility easement in Bayway Village to allow them to construct a swimming pool.

Commissioners unanimously approved a petition to vacate a remnant portion of an unopened right-of-way, known as 118th Avenue North. The vacation will remove the county’s maintenance responsibility for the right-of-way and put the property on the tax rolls.

Commissioners also approved item 39, which was an ordinance amending county code on risk finance that would allow the county administrator or his/her designee and the county attorney to reject settlement offers between $25,000 and $200,000.

And they approved item 40, which was an ordinance amending county code to further define permit requirements for non-domestic waste users and ensure the county had legal authority to implement new regulations in the Dental Amalgam Rule and Pharmaceutical Hazardous Waste Ban.

Commissioners unanimously approved ordinances adopting the Downtown Palm Harbor Master Plan, amending the comprehensive plan to expand the activity center future land map designation and amending the future land use categories and rules.

Unanimous approval was given to a “substantial” amendment to the fiscal year 2019-2020 annual action plan to receive Community Development Block Grant and Emergency Solutions Grant Coronavirus Response funds.

Commissioner approved a resolution for fiscal year 2020-2024 Five-year Consolidated Plan and the FY 2020-2021 Action Plan for the Community Development Block Grant, HOME Investment Partnerships and Emergency Solutions Grant programs.

The last item of business was approval of the city of Largo’s 15-year review of the West Bay Drive Community Redevelopment Trust Fund and an amendment of the plan. The amendment ensures that if the county imposes a millage rate that exceeds the city’s millage rate, the county’s contribution to the fund will be calculated using the city’s rate.

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