TARPON SPRINGS — Let the record show that the Oct. 26, 6:30 p.m. meeting of the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners adjourned at 4:51 a.m. on Oct. 28.
It was that kind of night. Or nights.
And early morning.
At issue was approval of the proposed 74-acre, 404-unit Anclote Harbor luxury apartment complex, located on the Anclote River and U.S. Highway 19. The development is a proposed multifamily development that includes a clubhouse, on-site recreational amenities, parking and stormwater facilities.
The Morgan Group, a Houston-based developer, is seeking to rezone the site to Residential Planned Development (RPD) along with approval of a Preliminary Planned Development, according to city records. City Commission approval is needed for the project to proceed.
After roughly 16 hours of testimony and debate that stretched over three days, the project received preliminary go-ahead on three 3-1 votes. Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis voted no on all three measures, and Commissioner Townsend Tarapani was recused because one of the developers’ planners, Cyndi Tarapani, is his stepmother.
The regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday, Oct. 26 ran until after midnight, when the council adjourned. The council picked up Wednesday night, Oct. 27, with the final vote and adjournment coming Thursday morning.
It was a meeting during which, following extensive expert testimony that went on for hours, even the Girl Scout oath was cited in appealing to commissioners to vote down the proposal, while accusations of conflicts of interest and bias toward the developer among city staff and “bullying” of commissioners flew freely.
The second and final vote is set for later in November.
But the first round was a doozy as city planners, project lawyers and planners, opponents and concerned members of the general public all showed up to inform, praise or condemn the proposed development. It seemed as though every seat in the city hall auditorium was filled with concerned citizens who wanted speak about the project, mostly in opposition.
While the discussion largely focused on concerns that are brought up at many development proposals at towns, cities, and counties across the country — increased traffic, dangerous ingress and egress to the project, population density, environmental protection, flood risks and even questions of whether the apartment complex would increase air pollution in the area — in the end there was little that the commission could do to stop the plan.
A particular concern was the addition of a second entrance-exit to U.S. 19 from the development.
Testimony was often vituperative and emotional, as accusations of back-room dealing and conflicts of interest by city staff along with questions about the safety of the project were thrown at the commission.
For example, Tarpon Springs resident Chris Hrabovsky said commissioners were being “bullied” into approving the proposal by Morgan attorneys. For Hrabovsky, the second entrance was a particular hazard. He pitted local residents against the developers by saying: “We essentially have a couple of groups. One wants to save lives. The other wants to make money. It’s pretty simple math.”
“We want to save lives,” Hrabovsky said. “Human life above all, but of course all the indigenous life, all the living things, trees, all the little animals.”
Hrabovsky continued by saying that the developers were “flim-flam artists” who have “lied, cheated and stolen” in order to get the project approved.
Jane Graham, an environmental attorney representing Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs, told the commissioners that because of increased traffic at the development, the proposal was “risky for the residents and the community at large.
“You’re putting people in harm’s way,” she said.
But in the end, the commission’s decision had to be based on evidence and not emotion.
“Realistically, would I like to see preservation everywhere, where there’s open space? Yes,” said Vice Mayor Jason Karr. “Do I own the property? No. Does the city own the property? No. This is not a discussion of is it going to be a park, is it going to be apartment complex, is it going to be preservation, a new city hall, a ball field. That’s not the focus.”
The focus, Karr said, was the issue of whether “the applicant come forward and put the everything before us with the experts to build an apartment complex based on the facts presented by those experts.” Referring to the November meeting, Karr said: “Just because it passed tonight doesn’t mean it’s over.”
Meanwhile, Commissioner Conor Donovan objected to what he believed was “character assassination” by opponents of the project.
“We need to get away from the mindset of McCarthyism where somebody gives me an answer, I don’t really like it, so I call them corrupt and call it a day,” he said.
After the meeting, Mayor Chris Alahouzos praised city staff and the commission for conducting thorough due diligence on the development. But he said he was not pleased by the often-contentious nature of the debate.
“I was disappointed to see the atmosphere that was created by some of the people,” he said. “They were very emotional, but they forget that this was a quasi-judicial process and you have to make a decision based on the information presented to you.
“When you have an item before you, you have to go on the evidence that is presented to you. That is how the decision was made. If they meet the criteria, you have no choice.