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Publix proposal finds friends in unusual place

Planners oppose a Publix at N Dale Mabry Highway and Lutz-Lake Fern Road, but many neighbors support it.

By BILL COATS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2000


LUTZ -- Battle lines are drawn over a proposal for a new Publix, and they are turning tradition on its head.

For years, developments proposed for Lutz generally have been massaged, then endorsed, by county planners but fought by neighbors and civic leaders. This Tuesday, planners will oppose the Publix shopping center at N Dale Mabry Highway and Lutz-Lake Fern Road, while most of the project's neighbors vow to support it.

Officers of the Lutz Civic Association, despite weighing in on every major rezoning in Lutz since 1997, were mostly undecided during a meeting Thursday night.

There were a few exceptions. Auralee Buckingham, a board member and a neighbor of the site, endorsed the project. "I'd rather take a chance with a Publix than a pig in a poke later on down the road," she said.

But Sue Padgett, the most seasoned activist among the neighbors, opposed the Publix. She warned that the shopping center's size would violate limits on commercial development along the last vacant stretches of Dale Mabry and would invite other breaches.

"It's going to open it up all the way to County Line Road," she said.

Planners invoke the same limits.

Ten years ago, Hillsborough adopted a binding North Dale Mabry Corridor Plan, designed to cluster commercial development at intersections. It limited the Publix corner to 60,000 square feet of commercial development.

But other events have clouded the effect of the corridor plan. In 1983, the corner was rezoned for a 110,000-square-foot shopping center. In 1996, the Florida Department of Transportation acquired half that property in a condemnation suit for an eventual frontage road.

Property owner Joseph DiGerlando contends that he retains his 1983 development rights for use on adjacent land. County lawyers aren't sure. Planners say the corridor plan's limit of 60,000 feet applies.

"Sometimes there's a gray area," said community planner Dave Borisenko. "But this is in black and white. Unless they amend the plan, we have no option but to recommend denial."

Developer Allen Goins is proposing 89,000 square feet on 12 acres. He said he has never developed a shopping center smaller than 77,000. Goins could shrink his Publix plan to 60,000 square feet, but he doubts that would generate enough revenue to keep his lenders and investors on board, he said.

Goins emphatically pitched the 89,000-square-foot plan to the neighbors. He said it would be preferable to a high school, which the Hillsborough County School Board has hoped for two years to build at the same corner. Because of Publix's influence, he said, the center would be more tasteful and controlled than a smaller center without a Publix.

In response to neighbors' requests, Goins agreed not to allow a gasoline station or fast-food restaurant on the property. He promised downward-directed lighting, landscaped berms and only a single entrance on residential Merry Lane. He said DiGerlando would swear off commercial uses on a 3-acre parcel next door.

In a straw vote, residents at Thursday's meeting voted 16-2 to support the project. A handful were undecided.

Goins acknowledged that he was relying on the neighbors' vocal support Tuesday.

"If you want this project, and I hope you do, then you really need to step out," Goins said.

Denise Layne, president of the civic association, was more blunt. Without neighbors' support, "He's going to get creamed on Tuesday," Layne said. "He knows that."

Goins gazed at the floor and didn't respond.

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