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Keystone residents criticize tree loss

They say a developer promised to save as many as possible. They also fear a fast-food chain will move in.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001


KEYSTONE -- Keystone Civic Association members had little ammunition to fight the supermarket development going in at the southeast corner of Gunn Highway and Van Dyke Road.

But in talks with the developer and the county, they thought they had managed to minimize the impact by preserving trees and natural vegetation.

But after observing the recent clear-cutting of trees and underbrush, they are accusing the developer, the Sembler Group, of breaking a promise to the community.

The landscaping plan called for a series of parking islands using existing trees and plants, said Carla Shelton, a site plan reviewer for Hillsborough County.

"They told us they were going to save as many trees as possible," association president Steve Morris said during the group's Thursday meeting. "My phone rang off the hook for a day."

The association also is worried Sembler plans to sell a 3,000-acre outparcel at the site to a fast-food chain, Morris said.

Sembler senior vice president David Murphy said Friday that the association is overreacting at this stage of the project. The landscaping plan approved by the county calls for planting new trees and plants along both Gunn and Van Dyke, he pointed out.

"We are developing . . . in accordance with the site plan that was approved with actual input from the community," he said.

The project, which calls for a 38,000-square-foot Kash n' Karry supermarket, 7,000 square feet of retail and a 3,000-square-foot corner parcel, is supposed to be finished in about a year. Among the many local projects it has developed, St. Petersburg-based Sembler also is responsible for BayWalk in St. Petersburg.

As for the outparcel, Murphy did not discount the possibility of selling to a McDonald's or similar chain. There is a McDonald's about 2 miles to the south at Gunn and S Mobley Road.

"We're not under contract with anybody right now," he said. But, "We're willing to sell it to any quality operation that falls within the zoning and purchases the property."

Residents said they view that type of development as a threat to their largely rural community.

Activists are particularly sensitive about site clearings on Gunn Highway. Despite being Keystone's busiest road, they aggressively push buffering to maintain some sense of a rural feel as it cuts through the community.

Morris said the county's initial response was that Sembler was in compliance with its site plan. Now, resident complaints have prompted the county to gather more information. An inspector will be visiting the site today, Shelton said Friday.

If Sembler overcleared it may have to replant palmettos and replace trees with the largest specimens it can find, she said.

"They will be responsible . . . if they've taken out more than they should have," she said.

Murphy urged patience.

"When the product finished, I think they're going to be happy with it," he said. "We haven't planted any of our landscaping."

But anti-Sembler sentiment is strong right now.

"To be honest," Morris said, "I don't trust Sembler. At every turn they pretty much did what they wanted to do."

- Josh Zimmer covers Keystone and the environment. He can be reached at (813)-226-3474 or e-mail at zimmer@sptimes.com.

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