TARPON SPRINGS — For more than 15 years, a large group of concerned Tarpon Springs residents has fought to keep a 74-acre parcel of vacant land along the Anclote River from being developed.

Located at 42501 U.S. 19 N., the property is home to 22 acres of wetlands as well as several endangered and protected species, including eagles, gopher tortoises and sandhill cranes. In 2005, the Friends of the Anclote River successfully beat back an attempt by Walmart to build a supercenter on the site, in part due to the environmental concerns and in part due to the group’s dogged preservation effort.

So, when the citizens learned Houston developer the Morgan Group filed rezoning and conditional-use requests to build a 400-unit apartment complex on a portion of the site, Friends old and new quickly reassembled and geared up for another fight to preserve the property.

“We were like an acorn lying dormant on the forest floor,” Peter Dalacos, a former member of the original Friends group, said recently. “But once this thing popped up, we were immediately reenergized.”

While the new Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs showed a lot of determination by assembling a team, including an attorney who was allowed to cross-examine, on short notice, the Tarpon Springs City Commission ultimately voted 3-1 in favor of the item on second reading Jan 15, paving the way for the 404-unit Anclote Harbor development, a private, gated community that will feature a pool, a clubhouse, walking and bike trails and boat and kayak launches, and other amenities.

“Even though they’re saving as much as they can of the property, my big thing is they’re not opening it to the public. No Tarpon residents will have access,” Dalacos said by phone after the meeting. “I joked that maybe the city could rent a unit so regular citizens like me could have access to it!”

Despite the group’s efforts, the odds were stacked against them, as Morgan Group’s team appeared to cover all their bases when it came to their proposal; in addition to agreeing to leave the majority of the property as open space, the developer requested a height variance in order to cluster the buildings together, reducing the density and pushing them even further back from the riverfront.

“The current zoning … could allow for a much more intense development on the site, by right,” Planning and Zoning Director Renea Vincent said, noting the maximum allowable density for the site is 489 units. She also noted the Morgan Group agreed to adhere to all state and federal regulations and permitting requirements for the protection of the eagles’ nests.

According to Kamil Salame, a Morgan Group development partner who grew up in the area, the company took every environmental concern into careful consideration during the planning of the project.

“We took all the environmental constraints of this site very seriously,” Saleme told the Suncoast News while praising the work of his consultant team, including local planner Cyndi Tarapani. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we meet and exceed requirements?’”

He cited the building height waivers, the eagle nest buffers and the overall preservation of the property as factors in the board’s decision.

“Of the 73-acre site we only have 11 acres of building footpads and parking. That says a lot,” Saleme said. “And we’re achieving 20% of the maximum intensity allowed on this site. It’s very unique. I think a project like this is unprecedented in North Pinellas County. I look at it as something that will draw a lot of people to Tarpon Springs that otherwise wouldn’t have considered living here.”

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Morgan Group partner Kamil Salame talks with community activist and former City Commissioner Peter Dalacos following the Board of Commissioners’ meeting on Friday, Jan. 15.

The commission did express reservations about certain elements of the proposal, including the single entrance and lack of public access to the property. Nearly 200 resident emails and comments also lamented everything from the traffic and environment to the fact that Commissioner Townsend Tarapani had to recuse himself from voting due to his stepmother’s involvement. Ultimately, though, officials said the decision had to be based on the facts presented during nearly 20 hours of quasi-judicial hearings over the past six weeks.

“This item is quasi-judicial, so we make our decision based on the information presented to us,” Mayor Chris Alahouzos said following three hours of taped emails that were read before the final vote, a statement supported by Vice-Mayor Jacob Karr.

“It’s not about, ‘is this a decision for a park or is this a decision for an apartment complex?’” Karr said after making the motion to approve the item. “At the end of the day we have to weigh the facts that have been laid before us, and I feel the facts have been laid before us to make our decision tonight.”

Despite the many concerns, the board approved the item, with several conditions including Morgan Group paying for a feasibility study for a rear entrance, by a vote of 3-1, with Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis voting against it.

Long after the City Hall auditorium emptied, Dalacos engaged in a calm, lengthy discussion with Salame about the commission’s landmark decision.

When asked what they talked about, Dalacos said, “We met after the last meeting and he told me he grew up in the area. He showed me everything they worked for and how the developer tried to minimize the environmental impact. So, I told him I appreciated that. It was a nice conversation. Sometimes, when you look someone in the eye you can tell when they’re not telling the truth, but I didn’t feel that with Kamil.”

Dalacos was asked if the fight to preserve the property was finally over, and he replied, “No. It’s definitely not over. We have avenues we’re going forward with that could hamper their project, because we want to continue the pursuit of our dream of having a public park on that site.”