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    A Times Editorial

    Judge housing plan by book, or let Oldsmar staff decide

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001

    Lots of people are interested in living in north Oldsmar these days: witness the rash of new subdivisions being built and occupied as quickly as builders can put them up.

    But the welcome mat is not out for one class of would-be resident: working people with low to moderate incomes. If you are a security guard, a preschool teacher, a restaurant cook, a sales clerk or an industrial plant worker, and you must rent because you can't afford to buy a home, it appears you don't belong in the residential areas north of Tampa Road in Oldsmar.

    At least that is the impression given by residents of those single-family subdivisions and a majority of members of the Oldsmar City Council.

    The Wilson Co., a local developer of such high-end projects as the Hyatt Regency Westshore, the Carillon corporate headquarters park and the New York Yankees spring training complex in Tampa, wants to build an apartment complex for low- and moderate-income workers on 27 wooded acres off Forest Lakes Boulevard just north of the Preserve at Cypress Lakes subdivision.

    People who know the Wilson Co. only as a developer of offices and hotels may be surprised to learn that the company also has developed and manages more than 6,000 rental apartments throughout Florida, many of them occupied by people whose incomes do not allow them to pay market rates for a place to live. The company receives federal tax credits for providing the affordable housing and does an admirable job of making the complexes look high-rent with lush landscaping, swimming pools and clubhouses.

    Residents of the Forest Lakes area got wind of Wilson's plans before the company had submitted any paperwork to the city, and they mounted a well-organized campaign against the project. They've been smart about it, focusing on potential traffic congestion and school crowding rather than on the fact that some occupants of the Westminster apartments would have low incomes or a different skin color.

    The residents also obtained promises from three candidates in the recent city election campaign to oppose the project if Wilson brought in an application. Those three candidates -- Jerry Beverland, Marcelo Caruso and Don Bohr -- were elected and now form a majority of the City Council, and their pre-election promise to oppose the project before they even had details about it now looms as an enormous complication in the city's review process.

    On Tuesday night in a quasi-judicial hearing, the Oldsmar City Council is scheduled to consider the Wilson Co.'s request to build the complex on land it plans to buy from the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. Under the rules for a quasi-judicial hearing, the council is legally bound to make its decision based on evidence presented, not a campaign promise.

    What are the facts in this case? That the land use and zoning designations for the property permit multifamily housing. That the project has been designed to minimize impacts on the Preserve at Cypress Lakes, a development of homes selling in the $150,000 to $200,000 range and the only residential development that shares a property line with the project site. That the project meets the city's height limitations and buffering requirements and exceeds its open space standards. That the need for affordable housing in north Pinellas is great, especially in the Oldsmar area, where industrial businesses are having trouble getting workers from elsewhere in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to fill jobs.

    The project would put a substantial burden on the local elementary school, but school impact is not a component of the city's normal review process.

    The evidence appears to favor the Wilson Co., but on Tuesday night, the City Council chambers are likely to be packed with hundreds of Forest Lakes residents recalling the campaign remarks of Beverland, Caruso and Bohr. The company is so concerned it will not get a fair hearing that it plans to ask that the city staff make the decision about the project, and its lawyers already are building a case file in the event they have to sue the city in federal court. That would open the city to the possibility of having to pay millions in damages.

    Unless the City Council is willing to let the staff make the decision, there is only one way out of this morass. That is not to delay, not to obfuscate, not to discriminate against people who have a legitimate need for safe, affordable housing, but to review the Westminster apartments project by the book, by the same standards it would any other project and according to the guidance of the city's planning and legal staffs.

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