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    Density law put in hands of voters

    Oldsmar, on the recommendation of its attorney, will ask voters whether an ordinance that allowed apartments to begin construction should stand.

    By JULIE CHURCH, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 16, 2002


    OLDSMAR -- The City Council has scheduled a special election April 23 on whether to repeal an ordinance that helped pave the way for a controversial apartment complex being built in Oldsmar.

    The referendum comes as the result of a petition signed by 1,336 registered voters. At issue is city ordinance 2002-01, which created an affordable housing density bonus specifically for the Westminster apartment complex.

    The bonus allows Tampa builder, the Wilson Co., to build 270 apartment units for residents with low or moderate incomes on a 27-acre property on Forest Lakes Boulevard. The bonus and the ordinance that created it were part of a settlement of litigation between the city and the Wilson Co. The bonus had the effect of letting the developer sidestep a question of how many units existing development rules would have allowed on the property.

    Opponents say the ordinance is unfair and was granted to the developer as part of a settlement agreement to avoid a federal discrimination lawsuit.

    On the advice of City Attorney Tom Trask, council members declined to repeal the ordinance during a special meeting Wednesday night. Had they chosen that option, it could have exposed the city to further legal action from the developer.

    "It is my recommendation that you allow the voters to make the decision on this issue," Trask said.

    The battle over the apartment complex, which is already under construction, has been brewing for more than a year. On several occasions, council members and city staff have been criticized by residents over their handling of the issue.

    That situation, and other ongoing zoning and permitting issues, also led some council members to question how well the city's community development department is operating.

    As a result, the council held a work session Wednesday to discuss customer service and how to improve and streamline the department's business practices.

    A plan presented to the council in 2000 made several recommendations for improving efficiency and customer service. But progress has been slow in achieving those goals, council members say.

    "The community development plan we started in 2000 hasn't gone very far," said Councilman David Tilki.

    Tilki is in the process of having an addition built on his Oldsmar home. He said the subcontractors he's worked with have expressed doubts about working with the city.

    "They were very disheartened when I mentioned Oldsmar," he said. "They just kind of shook their heads, and I don't think that's right."

    Councilman Marcelo Caruso said he's also heard several complaints from residents about the complexity of the city's zoning and permit processes.

    "People shouldn't have to jump though hoops," he said.

    The council directed City Manager Bruce Haddock to look into hiring a consultant from the Southern Building Code Congress International, a non-profit organization that provides technical, educational, and administrative support to governments and other agencies.

    "We need to get someone from the outside to review our business practices and see how they can be streamlined and improved," Haddock said.

    Haddock was also directed to begin examining the city's building codes, to see how they could be made more easy to understand and consumer-friendly.

    -- Julie Church can be reached at (727) 445-4229 or church@sptimes.com.

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