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Tierra Verde may get denser development

The commission okays a land use change that goes against a longtime rule to lower hurricane impact.

By WILL VAN SANT
Published January 11, 2006


For the first time in almost 20 years, Pinellas County is poised to carve out its first exception to a rule meant to limit hurricane damage in vulnerable coastal areas.

The rule allows no more than five housing units per acre in high hazard zones prone to storm surge.

The County Commission on Tuesday approved a land use change from commercial to residential for 11.8 acres on Tierra Verde's Collany Island. The land is adjacent to nearly 7 acres the board converted to residential from commercial in December 2004.

Tuesday's decision allows five units on the 11.8 acres, which is consistent with the county's coastal development rules. The 2004 decision, however, permits 12.5 units on an acre, said Paul Cassel, Pinellas' director of development review services.

Cassel said the two parcels will serve as a single lot, allowing the developer, Ed Medley, to distribute density over both parcels.

Medley has not submitted plans for the project. But if the developer uses all the density he has been granted, as many as 144 units could be built. Current coastal development rules allow only 93 units.

The state Department of Community Affairs may approve the two decisions within the next three months, Cassel said. The agency has given verbal assurances that it will support the 2004 decision, he said, and is unlikely to reject Tuesday's.

"This was a very unique circumstance," Cassel said of the 2004 land use change. "I'll be very honest with you, we were very nervous. We had never deviated . . . before."

Tierra Verde residents bitterly fought Medley in 2000 when he wanted to put a high and dry boat storage building on his land, but have enthusiastically supported his residential development.

Marsha Young, vice president of the Tierra Verde Community Association, said she understood the value of the coastal development rules but Medley had earned the right to turn a profit on his land.

"There's an exception to everything," Young said. "Sometimes it's not as black and white as it looks on paper."

The coastal development rule was created to limit hurricane damage in the most exposed coastal areas and help ease evacuations by limiting the size of the county's waterfront population.

To satisfy state and county regulators in 2004, Medley invited Pinellas emergency management director Gary Vickers to come to Tierra Verde annually and give hurricane preparedness talks, Cassel said.

Medley also agreed to put National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration radios in his units.

"These are special radios that, I guess, come on during weather emergencies," Cassel said. "I don't know whether that has been done anywhere."

Clearwater attorney Steven Williamson, who represents Medley, pointed out that most of the surrounding land, which was developed before the coastal rules were in effect, allows 15 units per acre. And his client could have tried to build an even higher density project like a hotel, he said.

"Ed Medley made a lot of concessions," Williamson said. "He took it upon himself to try to please the residents."

The commission unanimously approved the decision on the 11.8 acres Tuesday without any discussion. But when told that their staff thinks the parcel is part of a broader project that is an exception to the coastal building rules, members expressed concern.

"I want to review the decision," said board Chairman Ken Welch. "It doesn't make sense at first glance."

Commissioner Bob Stewart said he was comfortable with his vote because planners had recommended approval of Tuesday's land use change and the Department of Community Affairs will review it.

But he still had some reservations.

"If a storm were to hit in that area," Stewart said, "we would probably regret that decision."

Will Van Sant can be reached at 445-4166 or vansant@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 11, 2006, 00:40:10]


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