A developer wants to build an apartment complex on the Firmenich Citrus Center property.
When the Richman Group of Florida wanted to build a 200-plus unit apartment complex on 34 acres of vacant land in Safety Harbor, the Pinellas Planning Council went against a judge’s recommendation and denied the request, effectively killing the project.
The reason given for the board’s unanimous decision 18 months ago was simple — it wanted to preserve any land in the county that was zoned for limited industrial use.
But last week, the Safety Harbor City Commission agreed to amend the text of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, switching “office” from a secondary use to a primary use on all 78 acres of industrial land in the city.
“Sitting on the PPC for the period of time that I did, the county’s goal was to maintain all of the industrial lands as industrial because a lot of the industrial lands were being converted to office, retail, etc…,” Mayor Andy Steingold said during the July 20 commission meeting.
“We were losing all this industry in Pinellas County, we were losing revenue. It was going to Pasco, going to Hillsborough. So they kind of tried to stop that, and I think that’s what happened with the Firmenich property.”
An office building similar to this one on Drew Street in Clearwater could be built on the Firmenich property in Safety Harbor.
The item came before the commission after represen-tatives from BayCare Health Systems approached city officials back in March with a proposal to build a 50,000-square-foot office development on the Firmenich site.
After Safety Harbor officials received a letter from the county stating the proposed change to the city’s comprehensive plan was consistent with updates currently being made to the countywide plan, the item came before the City Commission for the first reading last week.
Considering the importance of the matter, the issue led to a lengthy discussion, and some disagreement, among the commissioners.
“The concern I have is that by making it less restrictive, are we inadvertently, perhaps, accelerating the demise of the industrial (land),” Commissioner Cliff Merz said, adding he would have a problem with the potential loss of industrial jobs and their associated wages.
Mayor Steingold pointed out that the land had been vacant for many years and the BayCare project would bring roughly 300 jobs to the area, and Commissioner Janet Hooper added that those jobs could be as lucrative as some industrial jobs.
“Some industrial isn’t high-paying, either. So where’s the balance?” Hooper said. “This particular plan with BayCare I think offers much more high-end (jobs).”
The Firmenich property is located on Tenth Street South in Safety Harbor.
I appreciate your concern,” she told Merz, “but I don’t think there is going to be light industrial to replace Firmenich.”
With Vice Mayor Andy Zodrow absent due to a vacation, the fourth and final opinion on the issue came from Commissioner Carlos Diaz.
“I think the new classification gives a lot more flexibility to the landowner, and at the end, if office makes more sense, the market will dictate that,” Diaz said.
“At the end of the day, it is what the market is,” he added. “These things go in cycles.”
Community Development Director Marcie Stenmark cautioned that while BayCare is “committed to the site,” that doesn’t mean that by approving the amendment, the commission would be automatically approving the proposed project.
“They have other steps associated with fulfilling this idea, and that would include a site plan and a conditional use,” she explained. “So approving this tonight doesn’t approve the BayCare specific use.”
Following the discussion and comments from the public, the commission voted 3-1 in favor of the amendment, with Commissioner Merz voicing the sole “nay” vote.
The item will next go to the state Department of Economic Opportunity and other outside agencies for consideration, and if it were approved, it would come back before the City Commission for a second reading later this year.
UPDATE: A previous version of this article misstated the county’s role in reviewing the city’s proposed change to the comprehensive plan. The story has been edited to include the correction. – Ed.