TARPON SPRINGS — The Tarpon Springs City Commission, acting in its capacity as the Community Redevelopment Agency, voted 3-2 on July 14 to purchase two lots on West Tarpon Avenue at the top of Spring Bayou for more than $650,000.
The decision means the sale of what’s known as the Hoffman properties, named for the landowner, local architect Ed Hoffman, will go to a referendum vote on Nov. 3, making it the second major property purchase the voters will decide on, joining the M&M Marina along the Anclote River.
“This is one of the properties I was told to negotiate and … we were able to successfully negotiate a contract,” City Manager Mark LeCouris said of the list of five potential purchases initially supplied by Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis shortly after he took office in April.
After receiving an appraisal of $575,000 for the vacant lots at 61 W. Tarpon Ave., LeCouris said he was able to negotiate the final selling price with Hoffman, with “a caveat that we would pay closing costs and we’d place a monument-type plaque on the property in a prominent place in honor of Mr. Hoffman’s mother and father.” LeCouris estimated the total closing cost to be around $657,000.
The decision to pursue the purchase of another large piece of property on the heels of potentially buying the marina, with an asking price of $1.55 million, was not met with universal approval by the board.
“I do have some concerns,” Vice-Mayor Jacob Karr said, noting “the city has no vision for this property and no ideas what this property is going to be even though it’s being presented to the residents to vote on.”
Karr said the potential uses for the space, including moving the historic Safford House to the site, had not been properly vetted, and he also cited the drain on the CRA budget the purchase would create.
“I say let’s do this right,” he said. “Let’s hold off on this purchase of the Hoffman property and … let’s really put some ideas down on paper of what could actually go there instead of just spending close to $700,000 on this property that we really don’t know what we want to do with.”
Commissioner Connor Donovan agreed.
“When we first discussed these potential properties to purchase, I did think it was unwise given the economic uncertainty we were facing with the pandemic, and I still think that’s the case,” he said.
Donovan said he was opposing the purchase for two reasons. “The first is we don’t have any plan as to what we’re going to do with the property,” he said. “The second reason is just kind of the trend of reckless spending over these past few meetings. We’re going to end up, if we approve this, sinking millions of dollars into purchasing properties and really acting as land developers in a time when so many people are scraping to get by. So, I’m in opposition to this tonight.”
Commissioner Townsend Tarapani disagreed with his colleagues, stating they’ve been planning to purchase the land since the CRA bought the old Sun Bay Motel adjacent to the Hoffman site for more than $800,000 and demolished the notorious landmark in 2018.
“In a perfect world it would’ve been nice to buy it a couple of years ago,” Tarapani said. “But, nonetheless, we have the opportunity to buy it now and I look at opportunities like this … in some cases as once in a lifetime.”
Commissioner Vatikiotis made a point of stating the city is “not purchasing anything. This is just allowing the residents to decide.”
But Donovan disavowed that angle.
“I absolutely disagree with the notion that to vote no on this is to deny the voters of anything,” he said. “Frankly, it’s not about trying to deny the voters anything, it’s about trying to be responsible with the taxpayers’ money and look out for it.”
Although Mayor Chris Alahouzos expressed concerns with the timing, the future development of the property and the fact that Hoffman never fulfilled a promise to develop the area within a year of the Sun Bay purchase, he said “it is the right to take it to the voters to decide. If the voters tell us to go ahead and buy it, I think we should, or they can tell us not to and then we just walk away. So, based on that I will support it.”
The item ultimately passed, 3-2, with Donovan and Karr voting against it.
After the meeting, Alahouzos spoke about the CRA’s decision.
“I want people to understand this was not a top priority, so I can understand the reservations of the commission because we don’t have any idea what we’re going to do with it,” the mayor said, referring to the prioritized list of sites to pursue, where the Hoffman properties finished fourth out of four.
“We have some proposals, but the idea was to let the residents decide. I thought the price was a very good price Mark negotiated based on the value of the property, which is going to go up, which is another reason I support giving it to the people. Same thing with the marina. It’s also going to go to the voters, and they’ll have the decision. If the people say they don’t want it, then we walk away.”
During the regular meeting following the CRA session, the board approved the ballot language for both the Hoffman and M&M Marina items and voted 3-1 in favor of a lease agreement for additional parking near the marina. The terms of the 15-year lease call for the city to pay Anclote Commercial Properties $24,000 a year, with a 3% increase each year, contingent upon the approval of the marina purchase. Officials said they believe the revenue generated from the marina’s 37 boat slips will cover the annual cost of the adjacent parking. Tarapani abstained from voting because he is the listing agent for the marina. Commissioner Donovan voted no.