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Safety Harbor fears influx of developers

Residents worry a building boom is about to transform their quiet refuge. Developers complain the city puts too many restrictions on them.

By EILEEN SCHULTE
Published August 14, 2005


SAFETY HARBOR - This city of under 18,000 could be one of the last in Pinellas County to be discovered - by developers.

Residents fear they've landed in Safety Harbor and are buying up old cracker-style bungalows with the intent of replacing them with townhouses and condos.

They've watched it happen in Clearwater and Dunedin, and they're fighting back, as one resident put it, "before the bulldozer pulls up to our front doors."

"Being in this development frenzy that we're in, what people don't want is to see this part of town changed," said Bob Diaz. "This is like the last stronghold. We're going to be just like every other area."

The city appears to be listening, some say a little too much.

"As soon as somebody objects, they'll kill a project," said developer Rick Zacchigna of Saxony Homes. "By limiting the density to such a low level you're sacrificing the viability of downtown retail businesses. I don't think it serves the city. They are losing sight of the objective, which is to redevelop downtown."

Zacchigna and business partner Jeff Barrett have been building in Safety Harbor since 1998. They constructed a villa/townhome project on Fifth Avenue north of Main Street and a single-family home. They are currently building four estate homes on 13th Avenue S.

They'd like to build townhomes at Main Street and State Road 590, and think residents' concerns are baseless. It's not as easy as residents believe to get something built in the city.

"There are so many mountains to climb before it comes to fruition," Barrett said.

* * *

City Commissioner Nadine Nickeson got right to the point at a public meeting about the city's redevelopment plan on Thursday.

"The good news is Safety Harbor is hot," she said. "The bad news is Safety Harbor is hot."

Nickeson planned Thursday's meeting when she started hearing rumors around town that she had been secretly meeting with developers who wanted to bring condos to the city.

"I was shocked," she said. "Just the inference that I was talking to someone without hearing the other side."

During the meeting, City Manager Wayne Logan and Assistant City Manager Ron Pianta showed a map of the downtown redevelopment district, which covers 123 acres and includes retail, commercial space, hotel, shipping, public use and low, medium and high density areas.

As homeowners watch the six-story Harbour Pointe development rise on Main Street and Bayshore Boulevard, so do their fears about the rest of the city rise.

They say they don't trust the City Commission to vote against large-scale projects.

Logan disagreed, saying "just because someone builds a six-story building doesn't mean someone else can say they have the right to build a six-story building."

Residents also confronted Logan and Pianta about building heights and the city's policy of notifying people who live within 300 feet of an affected area, leaving the rest of the city out of the loop.

Kathleen Earle, who lives off Main Street, has circulated a petition asking the city for a building moratorium "until we see what happens with Harbour Pointe," she said.

She said she has collected hundreds of signatures.

"(The developments) are creeping up and we're really nervous," she said. "We hate the idea of these towers. Harbour Pointe will be 85 feet on top of a hill in front of the marina."

Earle's neighborhood is three-quarters of an acre of triangular-shaped land bounded by Second Street S and Fourth Avenue S and Short Street, including the Lisa's Court motel in the redevelopment district.

Clearwater lawyer Erik Abrahamson and his father own five of the seven cottages in the area. A few weeks ago, Abrahamson asked the planning and zoning board to recommend that the density be changed from four units per acre to 15.

Residents believe he is going to build townhouses in the neighborhood.

"The city is being besieged by developers who want to lessen the (building) restrictions," Earle said.

And she believes they'll do whatever they can do to get their way, including deliberately letting their properties fall into disrepair.

"On Monday they are going to say the word blight," Earle said. "Blight is code in Florida for working toward eminent domain."

A workshop will be held 6 p.m. Monday before the regular City Commission meeting to discuss land use designation, density issues and building height limits, among other issues.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at 727 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 14, 2005, 00:53:19]


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