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    Oldsmar apartments face new threat

    A petition drive aims to repeal an ordinance that opened the gate to the Wilson Co. project.

    By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 31, 2002


    OLDSMAR -- As the developer of the proposed Westminster apartment complex prepares to begin construction, neighbors have launched yet another effort to stop the proposal.

    Six residents have organized a petition to schedule a citywide referendum on whether to repeal a controversial new ordinance that helped pave the way for the project. The ordinance allows the developer, the Wilson Co. of Tampa, to sidestep a question on how many units can be built on the 27-acre property, an issue that had plagued the project.

    If those residents get enough signatures, the city could schedule a special election so voters could decide whether to repeal the ordinance. According to the city's charter, about 1,300 signatures are needed to trigger the referendum.

    Attorneys for the Wilson Co. have already begun researching their opposition to the petition.

    "This could be a case study for a NIMBY (not in my back yard) project," said Tim Johnson, an attorney for the Wilson Co. "It will represent just another failed effort by this group of malcontents, who simply don't know when to quit."

    But residents who are leading the fight against the project say they are trying to stand up to a powerful developer that is using bully tactics to sidestep land development rules.

    City Council members approved the controversial ordinance only after the Wilson Co. threatened to file a multimillion-dollar federal housing discrimination lawsuit. The proposed 270-unit complex on Forest Lakes Boulevard would be for tenants with low to moderate incomes.

    The ordinance created for this project a "housing density bonus," which allows the Wilson Co. to build more units on the property than allowed by county rules because the company proposes to build affordable housing.

    "If you allow the rules to be broken, you have set a precedent that we don't want set," said Karen Manning, one of the petition organizers. "We don't want any developer to be able to come in and break the law. This isn't a vendetta against the Wilson Co."

    Johnson and the Wilson Co. have repeatedly claimed that residents oppose the project because it would cater to low-income families and minorities.

    Residents say they oppose the project because it violates a host of land development rules and would be too taxing on schools and city resources.

    "They are the ones who tried to, from the very outset, turn it into a NIMBY situation," Manning said. "It gets people all up in arms, and they forget about the real issues."

    According to the city's charter, residents have 30 days from Jan. 15, when the ordinance was adopted, to collect enough signatures.

    Residents began the petition drive this weekend and have gotten about 300 signatures, Manning said.

    The company is looking into whether the group of residents are violating a December court order that prevents them from further challenging the approval of the project's site plan, Johnson said. Attorneys also are researching whether the ordinance that created the density bonus can be repealed because it is one of the requirements of a settlement agreement between the city and the Wilson Co.

    Residents began collecting signatures last weekend after the Wilson Co. picked up building permits and paid about $1-million in city impact fees. The company pulled the permits on Thursday, just in time to avoid a new proposed ordinance that would require elevators. The company can begin construction any time within six months, said Nick Staszko, Oldsmar community development director.

    The Wilson Co. has not yet determined when it would begin construction; but because the company paid about $1-million in city fees, the project is definitely moving forward, Johnson said.

    "When you pay that kind of money, you want to get under way as soon as possible," Johnson said.

    -- Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or quioco@sptimes.com.

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