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    Developer wants to build houses on gulffront tract

    Neighbors are fighting a plan to build between 126 and 430 houses on the pristine property.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 11, 2001


    PALM HARBOR -- Viewed from the Gulf of Mexico, North Pinellas County's largest remaining piece of undeveloped waterfront is easy to spot.

    Tucked between buildings that stretch as far as the eye can see in either direction, the patch of pristine, lush green property acts as a navigational aid when Jerry Miller points his boat toward home.

    It is this same 86.5 acres that Raymond Thorn views from his screened-in back porch in Baywood Village. Watching egrets, ospreys and the occasional eagle circling the property provides him a soothing escape.

    Development now threatens that tranquil scene. Long held by members of the McMullen family, one of the pioneer families of Pinellas County, the property is under a sales contract to Gulf One Property Trust, which plans to build luxury gulffront houses.

    Last week, representatives of the company approached the county asking for a rezoning that would allow as many as 430 new homes.

    Nearby residents quickly gathered 600 names on a petition opposing such a development. More than 100 residents filled a zoning examiner's hearing Sept. 4 to say the development would overburden area roads, schools and water supplies and displace wildlife.

    Thorn was one of them.

    "I would hate to see a bunch of stucco houses," he said. "Enough is enough. Somewhere along the line, we have to stop developing."

    Miller, who also lives in Baywood Village, is heading a group of residents seeking to form a nonprofit corporation called Citizens Against Rezoning to oppose the development. What neighbors really want, Miller said, is for Pinellas County commissioners to buy the land.

    County officials have eyed the land for decades. In April, commissioners agreed to pay nearly $7-million to Daniel G. McMullen for the 35 acres immediately to the south to add to the recently opened Wall Springs Park. But the 86-acre property remained out of reach. The property was owned by D. Guy McMullen Properties Inc. and D. Guy McMullen Limited Partnership, both of which include various McMullen family members.

    When the property was sold to Gulf One Property Trust, headed by Martin Rosato of Orlando, the new owners approached county officials with an offer to sell the property so the county could preserve it as parkland. Neither side would disclose the price.

    "The price that was last presented to us was much more than we can afford," said Ellyn Kadel, the county's real estate manager. "Right now, we are not talking."

    Miller hopes CARZ can change the county's mind.

    "We hope that if we show a groundswell of support for a park, the county might regain an interest" in purchasing it, Miller said.

    Timothy Johnson, the attorney representing Gulf One Property Trust, said that because county officials were clear they were not interested in buying the property, the new owners are moving ahead with plans to develop it.

    The property's zoning is mix of uses, including agricultural and residential, which Johnson said would allow for 126 homes. The new owners have asked to rezone the entire property to a residential planned development zoning that would allow as many as 430 homes.

    What got neighbors' attention is that the new zoning also would allow five-story condominiums.

    Those fears were largely allayed at a zoning examiner's hearing last week, when Johnson said the owners are willing to sign an agreement such that they would only build homes. Johnson said the owners also promise not to erect any home more than 45 feet high, essentially a three-story home. That's the height of many of the neighbors' homes, Johnson said. Whether the houses would be detached is still "an open item," he said Monday.

    The new zoning would allow a much higher density.

    The number of proposed homes will be revealed when the plan again comes before the zoning examiner's board on Oct. 1, Johnson said. It will be more than 126 but significantly less than 430, he said.

    Residents who packed last week's meeting said the development would clog area roads.

    Miller said the development would add 2,600 cars per day to Alt. U.S. 19, where traffic woes have already earned it an F rating from transportation officials.

    "It's a bad situation and they're going to make it worse," Miller said.

    The plan also has drawn the ire of the area Girl Scouts council, whose Camp Wai Lani is just south of the proposed development.

    "Not only will our property be compromised because of the additional traffic in the area, but the serene setting and the ability for our members to enjoy that property will also be compromised," said Jody Johnston, executive director of the Suncoast Girl Scouts Council, according to a transcript of last week's meeting.

    Attorney Timothy Johnson said the county set the mark for development density when it purchased the 35 acres to the south from Daniel McMullen. The purchase price was based on two appraisals, both of which assumed the properties could be built with five units per acre even though it was only zoned for one unit per two acres.

    "That's quite a stretch," Kadel countered.

    The neighbors said they had another major concern: wildlife. The property is home to ospreys, blue herons, gopher tortoises, owls and fox squirrels.

    "In Pinellas County, as really anywhere," Johnson said, "when you develop currently undeveloped land, some wildlife will be displaced."

    - Times staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

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