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    Commission says no to Tarpon Springs

    Largo and Clearwater gain approval for expanding downtown redevelopment areas, but Tarpon is refused. The city may appeal the denial.

    By MICHAEL SANDLER, LISA GREENE and KELLEY BENHAM
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 30, 2002


    Pinellas County commissioners told two local governments Tuesday they can go ahead with plans to expand their downtown redevelopment districts.

    But they said no to a similar request from Tarpon Springs.

    Tarpon Springs had asked to expand its 225-acre downtown redevelopment district by adding one property, the Louis Pappas Riverside Restaurant.

    "They politely denied us," Mayor Frank DiDonato said. "They didn't even give us a chance to talk about it, which was perplexing."

    City commissioners had asked to include the restaurant on the grounds that the intersection where it sits, Pinellas Avenue and Dodecanese Boulevard, can't handle the traffic flowing through it. Conditions in the redevelopment area would deteriorate as traffic got worse, they said.

    But county staff members said that request didn't meet the rules that such areas be "blighted." County commissioners agreed.

    City officials said the restaurant's parking lot is in the district, and they thought the restaurant itself was, too.

    "It was assumed it was always in there," DiDonato said. "We went back and tried to do the right thing and they wouldn't even hear us in there."

    After a brief discussion Tuesday night, Tarpon Springs commissioners asked City Attorney John Hubbard to talk to county attorneys about the possibility of appealing the denial.

    Tarpon Springs' downtown redevelopment plan was crafted to tie the Sponge Docks, downtown's antique stores, the Pinellas Trail and the city's scenic bayous into a place with an identity of its own. It outlines a 10 to 20 year, $15-million program to improve streets, sidewalks, landscaping and parking.

    Pinellas officials gave the city the authority to create the redevelopment district in June 2001. The district runs from Meres Boulevard to the Anclote River and from a half-block west of Pinellas Avenue (Alt. U.S. 19) to Safford Avenue.

    Officials from Largo and Clearwater, which both had their plans approved, still would have to return to the county for approval of more detailed plans, and in one city's case, that may require a few significant changes.

    Commissioners reserved the highest level of scrutiny for two plans presented by Largo officials, particularly for what they noticed inside the West Bay Drive redevelopment district.

    What drew the most attention was that the city included some prime property -- Largo Central Park, a nature preserve, condominiums and a new supermarket -- but not lower-income residential neighborhoods along the road.

    Redevelopment districts are supposed to be reserved for property considered "blighted" or "slums."

    "The way it's jumping around . . . it looks like the areas (that) ought to be included are not included," Commissioner Calvin Harris said.

    Commissioners also had questions about Largo's request to expand the Clearwater-Largo Road district to allow up to 24 units per acre. That figure alarmed Commissioners Karen Seel and Susan Latvala, who see the increased density as clearing a path for developers who might purchase aging mobile home parks and replace them with apartments and condominiums.

    That could force residents, many of them elderly, to move.

    Seel asked that Largo officials look at the county's mobile home policies, designed to help residents in such situations. Latvala agreed.

    "Most of them are low-income, and to push them out, there aren't a lot of places for them to go," Latvala said.

    Largo City Manager Steven Stanton said his staff will review the comments and make any necessary changes. As for the boundaries in the West Bay Drive district, he said the questioned properties add value because they are "public investments."

    "(But) if they are not going to include a delegation of authority because those pieces are in it, we won't include them in a second time around."

    The plan will be discussed by Largo commissioners beginning next week, with two public hearings scheduled to follow in subsequent meetings.

    Stanton said he expected a tough review from the County Commission. He hopes to satisfy the concerns when his staff returns in the months ahead to present a more detailed plan.

    "I think that's their role, and we are obligated to have some legitimate answers," Stanton said. "In this area, I think it's appropriate for them to question it. Hopefully, our plan is consistent, and we will be able to convince them as to why we feel that way."

    Clearwater asked to extend its downtown redevelopment by about 228 acres, going east to Highland Avenue, between Drew Street to the north and Court Street to the south. Commissioners approved that request.

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