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TARPON SPRINGS – The City Hall auditorium was packed one night last month, but it wasn’t for a City Commission meeting or a performance by Tarpon Arts, which also uses the space.

No, the room was nearly full for a Board of Adjustment meeting. The volunteer city panel hears appeals of decisions and issues regarding zoning matters, among other tasks, during sessions that attract “crowds” that usually can be counted on one hand.

But on June 26, dozens of residents came out to speak about the single item on the agenda—a request for a six-month extension of a two-year-old variance for a vacant parcel of land at the northwest corner of Meres Boulevard and South Pinellas Avenue.

“We don’t typically see this many people at our meetings,” attorney Herb Elliott, the chairman of the Board of Adjustment, said at the start. “We usually look out and see five or six people there.”

The group showed up because the area in question has been a flashpoint in the community ever since the Board of Adjustment approved variances for setbacks related to the placement of gas pumps and parking spaces on the parcel in June 2017, paving the way for Wawa officials to consider building a 24-hour gas station and convenience store on the busy corner.

A grassroots campaign eventually caused Wawa to pull out, and with the deadline for the variance set to expire June 28, a representative for the applicant, Juniper Development, appeared to request an extension and explain the reason behind the delay in developing the property.

“We started the process for the site plan after the approval of the variance,” J.D. Alsabbagh, of Sycamore Engineering, said. “But through the legal issues we faced, which we settled last month, that’s the reason for the delay.”

When Elliott questioned what the violations were for, Alsabbagh stated: “The property had a lot of Brazilian peppers and reaching it by the tree removal people was not easy. It took four to six different contractors to complete it. But now we are in compliance completely.”

Brazilian pepper trees are an invasive non-native nuisance species.

A check of the city’s records shows Juniper agreed to pay $20,100 to settle an outstanding code enforcement lien on the property at 1098 S. Pinellas Ave. in April. According to the records, a fine of $100 per day was assessed beginning on March 4, 2016, and the total amount due to the city as of August 2018 was $79,890.20.

The case was brought before the City Commission on April 16 to authorize foreclosure on the property, the records state, but the decision was deferred.

According to the document, the city received the settlement offer from Alsabbagh after the meeting and, based on advice from City Attorney Jay Daigneault, the $20,100 offer was accepted and the lien subsequently removed, leading to Alsabbagh’s appearance before the Board of Adjustments a month later.

When Board of Adjustment member Jacqui Turner asked if the removal of the invasive species was the only thing holding them up, Alsabbagh said: “It was much more involved … than just moving trees. There were other things besides that.”

“To be clear, you’re telling us Brazilian peppers held you up for over two years?” board member Chris Hrabovsky asked.

Alsabbagh had no response.

When the public was allowed to speak more than a dozen residents, including several young people, reiterated their fear of having a gas station located so close to valuable wetlands.

“There will be runoff from gas pumps no matter where they are on the property,” Paul Robinson said. “There will have to be underground storage tanks, and they all leak.”

In the end, however, the community outcry was not the reason the board ultimately denied the applicants’ request.

“As much as I appreciate all the comments, I want to clarify things,” longtime Board of Adjustment member Michael Eisner said. “When we make a decision, we’re merely looking at does it fall within our criteria or not.”

To Alsabbagh he said: “I see you couldn’t get this done in two years. What you want to put there is irrelevant to me.”

The motion to deny the variance extension passed unanimously, 5-0, with Hrabvosky stating, “They have not met any standard, let alone the meager standards that we have.”

While Alsabbagh quickly left the room and could not be reached for comment, those who stayed were elated by the board’s decision, regardless of how or why it was reached.

“I’m very pleased with the decision of the board,” Michael Woods said. “I feel that the strong showing of support by the community was integral in helping them make the decision.”

Though he said he was pleased with the turnout and the passion of the residents, Eisner stressed the decision was made according to their guidelines for approval alone.

“When we gave the variance, he met all the criteria,” he said. “We have to justify our decisions, figure out was it justified, did you have time to do it, and he didn’t present that. Brazilian peppers was a poor excuse. We were ready to give him the extension, but he changed my mind. He turned it around. I’m not stopping it because of a gas station. That’s not my concern.”