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Lutz divided over size of shopping center

By BILL COATS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


LUTZ -- There is a glimmer of an agreement at Lutz-Lake Fern Road and N Dale Mabry Highway: Where a high school was meant to go, neighbors would love to have a Publix instead.

But from there, the proposal dissolves into a vintage Lutz debate, complicated and controversial. A county zoning hearing master heard two hours of it this week and must now decide how to advise the Hillsborough County Commission.

The real question is how much of a shopping center to allow alongside the Publix.

It is a legal question that has divided lawyers and an emotional question that has divided neighbors. It split longtime Lutz activists who, a decade ago, supported plans to consolidate and limit future commercial development at the intersections of N Dale Mabry. And it split neighbors who have pooled money since 1998 to sue the county school system over the high school.

"I honestly think that (Publix founder) George Jenkins would turn over in his grave if he knew Publix was involved in a project as controversial as this," said Larry Padgett, who argued that the shopping center should be confined to 60,000 square feet.

Publix hopes to build a medium-size, 44,000-square-foot supermarket in the shopping center. But Tom Renne, Publix's real estate manager, argued for an 89,000-square-foot center, which would make it easier to expand the store some day.

In 1983, the same corner was rezoned for a 110,000-square-foot shopping center, covering 15 acres. Then the state Department of Transportation condemned half the site for a future frontage road along N Dale Mabry.

The DOT paid $4.5-million for the land and other losses.

The developer's lawyer argued that property owner Joseph DiGerlando kept all the commercial development rights, since the DOT won't use them.

Assistant County Attorney Julia Mandell disagreed. "The development rights for that half of the property were part of what was taken," she said in Monday night's hearing.

While the condemnation loomed, the county adopted a binding North Dale Mabry Corridor Plan, limiting future shopping centers to the intersections of Van Dyke Road, Sunlake Boulevard and Lutz-Lake Fern. The plan limited DiGerlando's site to 60,000 square feet. He contends he was grandfathered at 110,000.

Developer Allen Goins has met repeatedly with groups of neighbors to rally support. He has sworn off fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, gasoline stations and full-service dry cleaners as tenants. He has promised berms and hedges along property lines.

That won support from several previous critics.

"I would like to recant petitions that I previously signed," announced Janet Wilson, who lives southeast of the site. "I have had a change of heart, a change of mind and a change of philosophy."

Bob Donaghy, another neighbor, said, "We would rather have this than some unknown 60,000 square feet in the future."

The Lutz Civic Association, originally opposed, endorsed the project Monday.

But others want to enforce the 60,000-square-foot limit.

"A large commercial center doesn't fit into the rural landscape of our neighborhood," said Allegra Campos, the closest neighbor to the property.

"Never in the history of Lutz," argued Sue Padgett, "have I heard residents and the Lutz Civic Association asking for more development than is in the plan."

- Bill Coats can be reached at 226-3469 or coats@sptimes.com.

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