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Power broker calls; land use plan changes

Developer Mel Sembler lobbies Pinellas leaders to make way for a shopping complex.

Published December 6, 2005

CLEARWATER - Republican power broker and former Ambassador Mel Sembler has been doing more than raising money to defend indicted White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

The prominent developer last week lobbied some Pinellas County commissioners to change the land use of 29.6 acres on Park Street in Seminole to accommodate a major shopping complex. Against the recommendation of county planners, the commissioners Tuesday voted 4-3 to change the county's land use plan for the area from industrial to commercial use.

Commissioners Karen Seel, Bob Stewart and Susan Latvala, who sits on the board of an anti-drug coalition created by Sembler's wife, all said Sembler called them late last week to discuss the change.

"He asked did I have any questions," Latvala said. "He was very polite, no pressure, just asked me to give it a serious look."

Seel and Stewart agreed with Latvala's description of Sembler's pitch. Unlike his colleagues, however, Stewart said the overture made him uncomfortable. Although it's common for those seeking favorable decisions to approach commissioners, a call from Sembler is different, he said.

"The significance of somebody like Mel Sembler calling and lobbying on an issue is not something that would go unrecognized or unheeded," Stewart said.

Sembler recently returned to the United States after four years as U.S. ambassador to Italy. During the administration of President George H.W. Bush, he was ambassador to Australia, and once led the Republican Party's national finance committee.

Sembler is also listed in one report as the chairman of a legal defense fund being raised for Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby was indicted in October on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

On Monday, Sembler's son Brent Sembler, who is finance chairman for gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, also made calls to commissioners. Republican board members John Morroni and Ronnie Duncan said they both received calls from the younger Sembler, but did not speak to him before Tuesday's meeting.

The commission's two Democrats, Calvin Harris and Ken Welch, said they had not been contacted.

Attempts to reach the Semblers Tuesday were not successful. Mel Sembler did not attend Tuesday's meeting. Craig Sher, chief executive officer of the Sembler Co., told the board that Mel Sembler was in Washington, "on more important business, presumably."

At issue are two parcels of land, a vacant 19.3 acres and 10.3 acres that's home to a Sears Roebuck & Co. facility. The two parcels are part of a larger 62-acre industrial tract.

The Sembler Co., which owns and operates BayWalk in downtown St. Petersburg, wants to turn the land into a shopping complex with a large department store as an anchor tenant, according to officials.

On Nov. 16, the Pinellas Planning Council considered the case. Citing traffic concerns and a need to preserve industrial land in the county, council staff advised against changing the land use plan. Council members voted 5-4 to support the change.

Such projects provide the kind of low-wage retail jobs that Pinellas already has in abundance, county economic development director Mike Meidel told the commission Tuesday. In order to ensure that high-wage jobs in the medical, aerospace, defense and computer fields are available in years to come, swaths of industrial land must be spared from commercial development, he said.

"We have to be careful that we don't give away our future one piece at at a time," Meidel said.

County planners echoed his arguments in their recommendation. And County Administrator Steve Spratt read a passage from Pinellas' development regulations that calls for saving industrial land.

The Sembler Co. was represented at Tuesday's meeting by Clearwater lawyer Tim Johnson and private consultants. They argued that the high-wage jobs Pinellas hopes to create can be had without industrial land, and to think otherwise was dated, "1970s" thinking about development.

In the end, Commissioners Latvala, Seel, Harris and Duncan voted to approve the change. Morroni, Welch and Stewart voted against it, and said the board was abandoning a policy principle that all had agreed on.

"The board seems to be wavering," Stewart said. "It begs the question of whether we are committed to preserving whatever little bit of industrial land we have got."

Sembler, who donates to local politicians of both parties, including current commissioners, still has two more hurdles to jump. State regulators will have to review the change, then the issue will go before the Seminole City Council, which will make a final zoning decision. No date has been set for either hearing.

[Last modified December 6, 2005, 22:23:02]

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