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Were calls by Latvala a conflict?

The commissioner avoided voting on a zoning issue that would affect her, but lobbied neighbors anyway.

By WILL VAN SANT
Published August 25, 2006


The reason for Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala's abstention was clear: A zoning change proposed for land on the Palm Harbor coast could boost the value of an adjacent parcel she partly owns.

But before the commission voted to reject the change on Tuesday, Latvala phoned several residents opposed to the proposal that would have allowed multifamily units instead of single-family homes. She said the development would be in the community's best interest.

Latvala broke no laws, but she upset neighbors, some of whom argue that there is a difference between what's right and what's legal, and that Latvala should not have made the calls.

"She just sort of wanted to buttonhole me," said David Mayer, 74. "I just didn't feel it was right for her to call like that and try to kind of sway my opinion."

A semiretired chiropractor, Mayer was at home on Prior Place when Latvala called Monday afternoon. He said Latvala told him the planned development had many benefits, such as saving trees.

Latvala acknowledged she made about five calls.

"This land is gorgeous," Latvala said in an interview. "And it's all going to be clear-cut because of these people. And they will have single-family homes with lawns the size of a postage stamp. And I thought it was important for them to know that."

But Roger Handberg, who directs the University of Central Florida's political science department, said Latvala "didn't violate the letter of the law, but she violated the spirit of the law. She crossed over the line."

Sallie Parks, a former county commissioner, has given Latvala past political support. Parks didn't want to judge her friend, but said she would have acted differently.

"When you abstain, you abstain," Parks said. "Back off completely and let the chips fall where they may."

The zoning change would have allowed multifamily units on a parcel on Sutherland Bayou, a few hundred feet north of Pop Stansell Park. There is more money to be made with multifamily development on the land because all units can have water views.

Had the zoning change been granted, it would have made it easier for Latvala's land to get a similar designation in the future.

In June of last year, Latvala and her partners, as Crystal Bluff LLC, bought the roughly 1.5-acre tract for $1.3-million. The other investors in Crystal Bluff, Latvala said, are physicians Alan Sherman and Dan Newhaller and their wives.

Latvala said she was bothered that some in the area, which she represents, felt they had no voice on the board because their commissioner had to abstain from voting.

Also, Latvala said, she believed the proposed development was a good thing, both because the man seeking the zoning had a right to profit from his land and because what he planned would be less destructive to the environment than what could be built.

So she asked an aide to gather e-mails residents opposing the project had sent to the commission, got names, and picked up the phone.

Tim Burkhardt, who markets nutritional products from his Prior Place home, got a call from Latvala. He said she told him the proposed multifamily project would bring less traffic to the area than single-family homes would.

"I think she was calling to try and soften me up a bit," said Burkhardt, 47. "There is no doubt."

Commissioner Bob Stewart said Latvala may have had pure motives, but in such cases silence is best.

"You just stay out of the issue and you don't say anything other than to indicate that you have a conflict," Stewart said. "That would have been the common-sense route."

Tracy Harris Jr. - who owns, lives on and wanted to build multifamily housing on his land - said he is not sure what he will do now. He may sell some of his land or build single-family homes.

But after working for a year and a half to come up with a project his neighbors could embrace, he won't be making another attempt to get multifamily housing approved.

"I'm a good sport," said the 64-year-old Harris. "I'm not going to try to swim upstream anymore."

Will Van Sant can be reached at 727 445-4166 or vansant@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 25, 2006, 07:23:54]


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