Condo project to undergo county's compatibility test
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
HOMOSASSA -- Generations ago, fishermen set up their camps in the shady swamps along the pristine Homosassa River, where a day at the docks yielded a bounty of bass. Men in small runboats could fill their nets with mullet, trout and red fish without straying far from shore.
Over time, parts of the fishing village gave way to weekend retreats and mobile home parks filled with retirees. More recently, upscale houses have risen along the waterfront, a thriving artists' community has taken root, and the manatees and marshlands have become attractions at what tourism leaders like to call "Mother Nature's Theme Park."
Now come the plans for 54 time-share condominiums, a cluster of 18 four-story buildings proposed on a mostly wooded 11-acre site at the northwest corner of the Halls River and Halls River Road.
Developer F. Blake Longacre and his critics have bantered back and forth on the technical issues: wetlands impacts, boat traffic, stormwater retention ponds and the like. The project's opponents have even filed formal challenges to Longacre's permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
But when the two sides square off Thursday at a 10:30 a.m. public hearing before the county's Planning and Development Review Board, many expect compatibility to be the deciding factor.
Does a time-share complex with four-story buildings belong in the old fishing village that has become Homosassa?
The planning board will have to answer that question one way or another as it makes its recommendation to the County Commission, which will cast the final vote on Halls River Retreat at a future date.
"I think (compatibility) is going to be a very important issue," said Denise Lyn, the attorney representing the Save the Homosassa River Alliance, the group leading the charge against the project.
"The (planning board) has to specifically find it is compatible with the surrounding uses," Lyn said, "and there are no other 50-foot-tall time-share condominium complexes surrounding this piece of property, so it appears to be standing out like a sore thumb."
Of course, Longacre completely disagrees. He said the time shares, which would each have six owners who would spend up to eight weeks a year at the complex, are compatible in a community with seasonal retirees' homes and tourist accommodations like the Homosassa Riverside Resort.
"There are dozens of tourist-related businesses up and down the river. So that's not incompatible," the Clearwater-based developer said. "As far as this being a second home, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of second homes in the area.
"As far as from a visual impact, the buildings would not be as tall as the trees," Longacre said. "The area is totally hidden. It will not get in the way of anyone's view."
River alliance member Winston Perry begs to differ.
"For anybody to look me in the eye and say 18 four-story buildings is compatible to a residential neighborhood is absolutely wrong," Perry said. "They need to go back to Webster's dictionary and look up what compatibility really means."
And so it seems compatibility is in the eye of the beholder. But its subjectivity does not detract from its importance as a development standard.
Last September, a Florida appeals court ruled that a 2-story apartment complex in Martin County must be torn down because it violated a section of that county's comprehensive plan that requires buildings adjacent to houses to be compatible. The apartments in question had 6.5 units per acre, while the surrounding neighborhood had single-family homes on half-acre lots.
The $3.3-million Villas at Pinecrest Lakes, on Jensen Beach near Port St. Lucie, was already home to 55 people.
"The ruling has boosted the spirits of all who believe in the comprehensive planning and responsible growth management of our communities," wrote Halls River Retreat opponent Billy Mitchell, who sent a copy of a newspaper article about the court ruling to the County Commission.
"We are grateful that the courts are willing to enforce comprehensive planning laws, and I trust you join us in applauding their landmark decisions."
One word that doesn't change
So what do Citrus County's own codes say about compatibility?
Compatibility is mentioned as one of the guiding principles in both the Comprehensive Plan and the Land Development Code -- and for good reason, said Marion Knudsen, a member of the county's planning board.
"Years ago, compatibility was probably the most important word we had, from my viewpoint," she said. "That was the one thing, the one term that didn't change. You can have other rules and regulations that can change, but you can't do that to this one, and that's what's so important about it."
The Comprehensive Plan discourages zoning changes that would make one piece of land incompatible with its surroundings. Compatibility is also a factor when a property owner applies for a "conditional use permit" that would allow for a different use of his property.
Section 5440 of the Land Development Code even mentions compatibility as a standard for "planned developments," applications like the one Longacre has submitted showing how a certain project would be built.
The planning board may recommend approval of a planned development application, the code says in part, if "the uses proposed will not be detrimental to present and potential surrounding uses," and if "land surrounding the proposed development can be planned in coordination with the proposed development and that it be compatible in use."
"People came here so that their views would not be taken away from them," Knudsen said. "Nobody wants to live in a one-story house and have five stories go up alongside them."
Harmony or discord?
Compatibility is part of the equation whenever the county reviews a project, but Community Development Director Chuck Dixon said there are other considerations, too:
Are adequate roads and water and wastewater infrastructure in place? Does the project comply with other parts of the Comprehensive Plan, such as the guidelines about wetland intrusion?
Even when it comes to compatibility, the standard can mean different things.
From a technical standpoint, the proposed Halls River Retreat is compatible with the property's zoning for mixed use, which allows up to 20 units per acre, Dixon said. With 54 condos and a manager's apartment on 11 acres, the project would average five units per acre.
Whether the project is compatible with the community, however, "will really be an issue that the Board of County Commissioners needs to take under consideration rather than staff," Dixon said.
Aware of Citrus County's environmentally conscious climate, Longacre said he tried to design a green project that would be "in harmony" with nature and the community. The buildings would be made of nonpolluting, recyclable materials, and the condos would feature energy-efficient appliances.
One of the most controversial aspects of the design -- the four-story buildings, consisting of ground-level parking topped by three stories of condos -- came as a way to minimize the amount of impervious surface on the property, he said.
Longacre said he could lower the buildings to three stories by putting the parking elsewhere, adding up to 18,000 square feet of additional paved surfaces.
"The fact that I'm doing it as environmentally conscious as possible has come back to bite me," he said.
Getting to the future
Longacre said he has made several revisions to bring his project into compliance with the Comprehensive Plan and the Land Development Code, including nixing three buildings that would have intruded on the property's riverine wetlands.
"At some point I guess it comes down to, what country do we live in? The United States is founded on property rights," Longacre said. "I'm not trying to build a manure plant there. It's going to be a wonderful place that Citrus County can be proud of."
But attorney Lyn said the project remains out of synch with a vital piece of the Comprehensive Plan: the Generalized Future Land Use Map, which shows the property designated as "low intensity coastal lakes," where development is limited to one home per 20 acres.
Lyn said that designation is at odds with the county's zoning maps, where the "mixed use" zoning allows up to 20 units per acre at the site.
At one time, both maps showed the property as "mixed use." Then, in 1997, the county eliminated "mixed use" from the Comprehensive Plan and gave those properties new designations allowing less intense development.
But the county never updated the Land Development Code and its zoning maps to reflect the change.
(County staff has since drafted an ordinance to eliminate the inconsistencies between the Comprehensive Plan and the Land Development Code, although if approved it likely would come too late to affect the Halls River Retreat site.)
County staffers say the density allowed at Halls River Retreat is determined by the zoning maps, which are regulatory documents, not the Comprehensive Plan's future land use map, which is a general guide to long-term growth.
But Lyn said state statute is clear: When there is a conflict between the regulations and the Comprehensive Plan, the plan prevails.
"You can't get to the future if you aren't going there today," she said.
Hearing on project
The Planning and Development Review Board public hearing on Halls River Retreat is at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in Room 166 of the Lecanto Government Building, 3600 W Sovereign Path.
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