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Zoning deal investigated
A City Council member says a civic group may have bartered its support for money.
By JANET ZINK
Published June 22, 2007
TAMPA - Police are investigating local land development, and a City Council member says it involves a neighborhood group asking a developer for money in exchange for supporting a project.
The City Council was supposed to hear a rezoning request from Metropolitan Life Insurance on June 14. But the city's legal staff asked to postpone the hearing until July 19.
"It was determined there were some legal issues that we needed to resolve and therefore I recommended that we continue it, " said Assistant City Attorney Julie Cole.
Council member Thomas Scott said that he was told by city staff that the hearing had to be rescheduled because of an investigation.
"The legal staff came in and told us that because of an investigation going on we should not hear the rezoning until they finished the investigation, " he said.
And, he said, he was told it involved a civic association requesting money for its support.
"They felt compelled to turn it over to the proper authorities, " Scott said.
Concerns about such rezoning side deals - including one in West Tampa involving more than $700, 000 - also prompted the council to vote for a change in the city's ethics policy Thursday.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said the issue came to her attention several weeks ago.
"I immediately took it to the Police Department for their investigation, " she said. "I can't say any more about it than that."
Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy offered no details, but said Thursday there is an "ongoing investigation that involves land development in Tampa."
The proposed 1.6-million-square-foot Metropolitan Life project is in the Lincoln Gardens/Carver City neighborhood.
Site plans for the project show that the developer has devoted $45, 000 to crosswalks "in response to concerns regarding pedestrian safety on Lois Avenue expressed by the Carver City/Lincoln Gardens Civic and Homeowners Association board."
Neighborhood association leaders declined to comment.
"MetLife is not the subject of any police investigation, " said MetLife spokesman Chris Breslin.
Meanwhile, at the request of City Council member Charlie Miranda, the council voted unanimously Thursday to add a provision to the city ethics code that prohibits requests for "money, service or other thing of value" in exchange for support or opposition to a matter pending before the council.
The change will take more discussion and a final vote to become official. It would also require anyone who testifies on a matter before the council to reveal any relationship he or she has with the petitioner.
Miranda said he brought the issue to the council because he was uneasy about side deals cut between developers and neighborhood groups.
He specifically discussed two agreements between MDG Acquisitions and the West Tampa Community Development Corporation that would require the developer to give the West Tampa neighborhood group more than $750, 000 for construction of affordable housing.
"During recent council meetings I have felt uneasy about not the zoning itself, but about the side agreements between developers and individuals, groups of individuals, associations, CDCs or committees, " Miranda said.
"These acts have cast a large shadow of darkness on a system that has been working fine until now, " he said. "Is good zoning good, or does money make bad zoning even better?"
Miranda said he would vote against any development that included a side deal with it, even if it was a worthwhile project. "This cannot continue, " he said.
Scott thanked Miranda for bringing the topic to the council. "It's important to keep the zoning process as pure as possible, " Scott said.
MDG Acquisitions, headed by developer Ken Morin, went before the City Council last year for a rezoning that will allow 540 apartments, condos, and town homes and 8, 000 square feet of retail space.
The West Tampa CDC supported the project, and the company agreed to give the group $525, 000 for affordable housing.
MDG now wants to expand the development and had agreed to give the West Tampa group another $250, 000. But, according to an e-mail from the company to the city attorney's office, MDG withdrew the offer after talking to an assistant city attorney.
Bryan Sykes, an attorney for MDG, had no comment on the matter, but said it would be discussed at a zoning hearing next Thursday.
Michael Randolph, head of the West Tampa Community Development Corp., said his group supported MDG's project even before the developer offered money for his organization to build affordable housing.
"Something that was done unethically in another neighborhood shouldn't affect a neighborhood where people did the right thing, " he said.
"The developer is cognitive of the fact he's coming to a neighborhood where a lot of people couldn't buy his housing. As a good gesture on his part he wanted to put something in place that would help people afford a house who might not be able to afford a house, " he said.
Miranda also directed the city legal staff to change the city code so that rezoning petitions for West Tampa and East Tampa will no longer have to be reviewed by neighborhood groups.