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Church denied slivers of land

The Tampa Palms taxing district will not give the church about half an acre near Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

By SUSAN THURSTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001


TAMPA PALMS -- Fearful about losing open space and creating more traffic, the Tampa Palms taxing district has turned down a request to give Grace Episcopal Church about half an acre near Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

Members of the Tampa Palms Community Development District said Wednesday they opposed giving away land that eventually could contribute to overdeveloping the church site. They sided with several neighbors who want to preserve the area's natural landscaping.

"Our community will be less desirable if we lose our open space," said Pat Forman, who lives in Asbury village, next to the church. "Giving that land does change the look and character and feel of our community."

Grace Episcopal had requested three slivers of land along Bruce B. Downs and Tampa Palms Boulevard to accommodate its expansion plans. The church owns 33 acres along Amberly Drive near the Bruce B. Downs/Tampa Palms corner.

In the next few years, Grace Episcopal hopes to build a new sanctuary, parish hall and school for kindergarten through fifth grade. Church leaders said the extra six-tenths of an acre would allow them to put a permanent sign along Bruce B. Downs and help the church meet setback requirements for the expansion.

District board members said giving the land now would be premature, given that Grace Episcopal has no firm plans. They feared that expanding the church and adding a school would create more congestion in an already busy area. They also opposed making an entrance to the church on Tampa Palms Boulevard across from City Plaza.

"I've got serious reservations about the development if access points are up for discussion," said Mark Fitzpatrick, chairman of the CDD.

Church officials said any plans they pursue would have to comply with neighborhood and city rules. They stressed that previous talks about building a school for 700 students was "misguided."

"We don't have the size of property here to think in those terms," said the Rev. Bob Cain, vicar of Grace Episcopal. "The best we could do responsibly and realistically is a parish elementary."

Some homeowners in Asbury said they opposed the land transfer based on experience. In 1996, Tampa Palms gave the church control of the small pond at the corner of Bruce B. Downs, but it was never maintained as promised, said resident Bob Van Sickler.

"We thought we were doing something good for the community, but it wasn't," he said.

Resident Gene Field said he could not support the church's request because there were too many unanswered questions.

"I feel like I've been put in the position of being the bad guy again," he said. "All we ever get are proposals. I don't know what we're dealing with."

Church officials apologized for any confusion and hoped to restore the community's trust.

"I think we are duty-bound to address concerns," Cain said. "We don't have the best track record with the community, and I want to change that."

Board members did ask staffers, however, to look into whether the district could allow the church to erect a 10- by 9-foot sign on the CDD's property along Bruce B. Downs. It is uncertain whether those plans would meet New Tampa's new rules for signs.

The church's request came several months ago after officials discovered that they didn't have control of the land. Grace Episcopal initially thought the land was part of a prior property deal between the church and taxing district, but it turned out to be a mistake.

- Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3463 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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