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Rezoning opponents to face off Tuesday

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By MELODY JAMESON

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Of one mind, four residents of SouthShore Falls point toward a proposed commercial office site immediately north of their homes in the Apollo Beach area. They vigorously oppose the property owner’s rezoning application to permit several office buildings at the Miller Mac Road location and, the four, (left to right), Bruce Davis, Gerry Kelley, Doug Hardy and Andy Hornick, along with dozens of their neighbors plan to present their objections Tuesday to county commissioners. Photo courtesy of Bruce Davis
APOLLO BEACH — Professional planners may not see eye to eye on a proposed rezoning here, but area residents remain focused in opposition to three potential office buildings in their midst as the property owner sets his sights on “quiet” commercial development in the neighborhood.

County commissioners will be eye ball to eye ball with each side Tuesday morning.

Multiple issues surround proposed rezoning of about 2.5 acres on the south side of Miller Mac Road, near the former site of Apollo Beach Rescue Squad operations and now including a Tampa Electric Company substation.

The property is immediately opposite family homes built along the north side of Miller Mac as well as adjacent the buffered northern edge of the age-restricted SouthShore Falls residential development to the south.

It is owned by Leroy Gonzalez, who holds other commercial sites in the area and who has petitioned county agencies for approval of zoning that would allow construction on the site of three one-story office buildings of 5,000 square feet each. Gonzalez is seeking rezoning of two parcels - one a 42-foot-wide strip along the eastern side of the substation and a second of 2.09 acres on the western and southern sides of the electrical facility — to a commercial category allowing business and professional offices. He is represented in the matter by Todd Pressman, a Pinellas County-based consultant.

Another Gonzalez parcel, approximately a half acre immediately east of the two now being considered, was approved for commercial development in August. A currently-vacant building that formerly housed the disbanded rescue squad and at one point a gymnastics center is located on this site. The three parcels comprise a total of three acres.

It was that opening action that aroused the rezoning opposition centered in SouthShore Falls, according to Bruce Davis, resident, retired college professor, and small business operator in Apollo Beach. While the proposed office development is close to their backyards, separated only by a conservation area, he said, residents there did not receive the customary written notice of the first rezoning proposal and normally would not see county signage on Miller Mac Road. Consequently, the affected residents could not raise any objections initially, he asserted.

Some 60 of them did, however, appear in County Center for a November 8 hearing on Gonzalez’ two current rezoning requests before a hearing master. Hearing officer Steven Luce sided with the Gonzales/Pressman positions despite strong resident objections, presentation of a 255-signature opposing petition and cautions expressed by professional planners. He found the zoning change to be minimal and reasonable, with the inherent restrictions providing protection against more intensive development. No additional supporters spoke in favor of the rezoning applications.

Hillsborough’s Planning and Growth Management Department did not support the rezoning, finding the proposal inconsistent and incompatible with the area’s existing pattern of development.

The Planning Commission staff, on the other hand, suggested the prospective development is consistent with Hillsborough’s Comprehensive Plan land use and compatible with established mixed commercial and residential use in the area, citing “unique” circumstances that support a waiver of certain criteria based on a portion of the proposal that could constitute an exception.

In the usual course of events, the matter was forwarded for consideration by Hillsborough’s Board of County Commissioners and placed on a Tuesday, January 11, meeting agenda, enter, again, the undaunted SouthShore retirees.

Clad in eye-popping fluorescent green tee shirts, a substantial contingent plans to board a chartered bus early that morning for the trip to Tampa to press their positions on pending traffic congestion, roadway risks, environmental degradation and wildlife destruction. The opposition leaders were busily signing up returning objectors early this week and “we could have more than the 65” who appeared for the November hearing, Davis said.

As the group’s spokesman, Davis said he will endeavor to clarify for commissioners aspects of the situation which residents think have been muddied with misinformation. For example, he said he wants commissioners to understand how unreasonable is the contention that development on Miller Mac is no different than along Flamingo or Apollo Beach Boulevard. After all, the boulevard is four-laned with a median and Flamingo has speed bumps, Davis pointed out, while Miller Mac remains “very wavy” from being under three feet of water in 2005, is narrow, steeply sided and lacks shoulders. Plus, he added, the traffic congestion on Flamingo around the AB Post Office provides a lesson in how not to channel vehicles on a road without sufficient width.

Then, too, the SouthShore contingent disputes references by Luce, the November hearing officer, to “an emerging pattern of development” on Miller Mac. “The truth is there have been no new commercial buildings built on Miller Mac Road during the last decade or longer,” Davis emphasized this week. The facts would contradict the implications made by The Planning Commission, he suggested.

The community also objects to the characterization it is “gated” in the sense it is fenced, Davis added, when it actually “relies on a variety of physical barriers for its privacy and security.”

In fact, it is one of these barriers, the wetlands that stretch in an east-west alignment along the community’s northern border, that concerns them most, Davis said. Aspects of the proposed commercial development behind the existing electric utility’s substation will both destroy those wetlands and adversely impact wildlife, they contend. The community’s petition to the BOCC is: “Do not destroy a beautiful wetlands and waterway for the sake of a development that well may stand empty for years,” he added.

In short, he summed up, if the site is to be developed for commercial use, the best approach would be the county’s own P&GM vision of one single story building of 5,000 square feet on the first 275 feet fronting on Miller Mac Road.

Pressman, Gonzalez’ representative, also expressed misgivings about misinformation. He told The Observer this week he thinks erroneous information has been spread about the project. He wanted to meet and work with the SouthShore Falls residents, he said, but was prohibited from doing so. When asked by whom, he replied “the leadership there; they said I had to work with them. I had to say okay.” The two sides have met at least once to discuss the situation.

Residents are raising objections to a project that is “quiet, all (activity) interior,” Pressman said of the proposed office complex. In addition, he pointed out a barrier of a combined 140 feet of conservation area, “forest” and the required 20 foot buffer would separate it from the residential community.

The consultant also referred to different levels of rezoning. The Gonzalez petition is solely for a change of designation on the property, an application that does not require a site plan or development plan. Whenever a definitive project is proposed, the wetlands issues then will have to be investigated, he added.

Asked if Gonzalez plans to market the property to potential developers if the rezoning is approved, Pressman replied that all options remain open. These could include reducing the number of structures to be built on the property, he added. The existing structure which once housed the rescue squad probably will remain on the site, he said, and may be returned to use as a gymnastics center.

As for the prospect of another empty complex joining the numerous others in the Apollo Beach area, Pressman noted “it’s easy to point to” underutilized commercial space, but added there could be any of a range of reasons for the situation, including rental rates too high for the market.

In addition to the opposing parties, Brian Grady, planning manager in the county’s P&GM department, said his agency plans to attend the Tuesday BOCC meeting.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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