TARPON SPRINGS — For more than a decade, a 74-acre parcel of land along the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs has been at the center of a battle between developers who want to build on the site and residents who want to preserve it.
The conflict dates to 2005, when Walmart unveiled plans to construct a supercenter on the property at 42501 U.S. Highway 19. A group of concerned citizens, the Friends of the Anclote River, fought to prevent the project from moving forward, citing concerns about the wetlands and wildlife. Following years of meetings and discussions, the group succeeded in turning the retail giant away as Walmart eventually abandoned its plans and wound up constructing its supercenter nearby.
Today, the parcel, known locally as the “Walmart property,” is once again at the center of a tug of war between residents and developers. Representatives for Houston apartment builder the Morgan Group appeared before the Board of Commissioners during a pair of public hearings in December to present a preliminary planned development and rezoning request for Anclote Harbor, a 400-unit apartment complex featuring a pool, pet park, walking trails and boat and kayak launches to be built on a portion of the land.
And as soon as the word got out, the Friends of the Anclote River quickly geared up for another fight to preserve what’s considered one of the largest remaining swaths of undeveloped land in Pinellas County. It is home to two bald eagle nests and threatened gopher tortoises.
“We want it to be a park, as we’ve proposed many times over the years, and it can be functional while still protecting the ecosystem,” former city commissioner and current Friends president Peter Dalacos said by phone Dec. 29. He noted the group has been working with city, state and county officials for years in an attempt to purchase the land via a community trust grant.
Dalacos acknowledged the developer seems to have learned from past mistakes.
“Part of what they learned from the past is they designed the buildings to maintain a good distance from the eagles’ nests,” he said. But he added, “We don’t want any residential or commercial buildings on that property.”
Morgan Group consultant Cyndi Tarapani said the developer went above and beyond what was required when it came to planning the project.
“From the very beginning we’ve been very mindful of the unique environmental features and nature of this site,” Tarapani said during the item’s first public hearing Dec. 8. “These unique environmental features have been the driving force behind the entire design of this project.”
Tarapani, a veteran planner whose stepson, Commissioner Townsend Tarapani, was forced to recuse himself from voting on the item due to the conflict of interest, noted the five residential buildings would be concentrated in the center of the site and set back significant distances from the river.
“The whole purpose of the design is to cluster those buildings so that we can have those significant setbacks and we can also have a significant buffer and protection for the eagles,” she said.
She also noted of the site’s 22 acres of wetlands, the project is “only impacting less than one acre. That’s phenomenal for a site of this size. I’ve been working as a planner for over 38 years … and I have never seen a site of this size impact less than one acre. Ever.”
Despite the environmental considerations, residents and city officials expressed concerns about other aspects of the project, including having only one entry-exit point on U.S. 19.
“I’m concerned about the traffic on 19,” Mayor Chris Alahouzos said during the Dec. 8 hearing, noting exiting cars would have to traverse three lanes of traffic to turn around. But Planning Director Renea Vincent explained that the Florida Department of Transportation wouldn’t allow a second exit on U.S. 19, leading to calls to widen an adjacent road to be used as an emergency exit.
The concerns led Dalacos to ask the commission to delay voting on the item, a plea that fell on deaf ears as the commission voted 4-0 in favor of the ordinance on first reading.
The second reading on Dec. 15, however, was postponed to Thursday, Jan. 7, when the meeting ran long and there wasn’t enough time to allow all the involved parties to be heard. Dalacos said the delay gave the Friends and others interested parties some much-needed time to plot their next move.
“We’re meeting with an attorney and we’ve contacted people who live near the property to help us gain affected party status, which is needed to present evidence and cross-examine during a quasi-judicial hearing,” he said. “And we’re working on finding a traffic consultant to help with that aspect of the case.”
When asked if it felt like they had a chance to turn back another big development despite the long odds, Dalacos replied, “We do. We honestly believe that because there’s a good amount of community support to defeat this, and the delay has helped us find the attorney and find the affected parties.”
He also noted Commissioner Tarapani’s recusal could work in their favor.
“We feel we have enough information available to show flaws in their plans and give two commissioners the ability to say, ‘No,’” he said, noting a 2-2 deadlock would result in the item failing to pass.
“So, we’re definitely gung-ho to stop it.”
The second reading of the ordinance is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 7, beginning at 6 p.m. at Tarpon Springs City Hall. The meeting will also be livestreamed. Visit ctsfl.us for more information.