Home / Government / Safety Harbor residents question officials’ motives over downtown development project

Safety Harbor residents question officials’ motives over downtown development project

The Safety Harbor City Commission’s recent approval of a mixed-use development on Main Street was questioned by residents and city officials this week. (Credit: Bay to Properties)

The latest twist in Safety Harbor’s ongoing pro- and anti-development saga took an ugly turn this week, as residents questioned the motives of city officials for approving a mixed-use project on Main Street.

The remarks were made by a pair of citizens during the March 5 City Commission meeting, and they were followed by questions from Commissioner Andy Zodrow about the terms of the development agreement with Bay to Bay properties that was approved by the commission in December.

Both Kelly Leavy Barnes and David Pearson asked why the city waived a reported $160,000 in fees the developer would have had to pay into the Community Redevelopment Agency funds, a fund designed to improve blighted areas and public spaces, according to Leavy Barnes.

Screenshot of Kelly Leavy Barnes at the March 5, 2018 Safety Harbor City Commission meeting.

“I’m here speaking to you today about the payment of the one-hundred and eighty thousand dollars of CRA funds that were made to developer Bay to Bay for the strip mall and apartments on Main St and Second Avenue North,” Leavy Barnes stated during the Audience to be Heard portion of the meeting.

“How can this city justify a payment of one-hundred and eighty thousand dollars to a developer, Bay to Bay, for reimbursement of development costs for a commercial building with 24 luxury apartments?”

After noting that CRA funds typically are used for improving small businesses and city projects like the Waterfront Park and Mullet Creek Bridge, Leavy Barnes concluded her speech by stating “This project does not meet with any criteria. It makes no sense to me and raises the issue of why this developer was favored. Personally, I’m disgusted.”

David Pearson echoed those concerns, and he took the allegations of impropriety one step further.

Screenshot of David Pearson at the March 5, 2018 Safety Harbor City Commission meeting.

“I heard some of the people who voted on this have personal relationship with the developer,” Pearson said, adding, “isn’t this a conflict of interest? Or is it some sort of a payback?”

“This in no way justifies a one-hundred and eighty thousand dollar payment to a for-profit business and raises in my mind a question of why.”

Per the terms of the agreement, the Safety Harbor based developer made several concessions in the project’s design, including reducing the maximum allowable height for the residential and retail structures; reducing the number of apartments in the residential unit; dedicating land and parking spaces to the city; and restricting the use of the first floor of the commercial building for retail use only, a move designed to encourage much needed economic growth in the downtown district.

In return for these and other concessions, city officials determined the project qualified for economic incentives in the form of Community Redevelopment Agency funds; they agreed to waive roughly $160,000 in development fees in lieu of paying Bay to Bay directly from the fund.

Several months later, and with the election right around the corner, these questions are being raised, a fact that did not sit well with Vice Mayor Carlos Diaz, who was subbing for the absent Mayor Joe Ayoub on Monday.

Safety Harbor Vice-Mayor Carlos Diaz.

“The allegations that there’s a conflict of interest involved with this development is preposterous,” Diaz said. “I don’t know where that info comes from. But nobody on this commission has any kind of biz ties to that developer, as far as I know.”

Diaz went on to note the amount of property tax the Bay to Bay project is expected to generate annually—estimated at $70,000-$75,000—more than justifies the CRA fund relief given to the developer.

“So, the residents will get their money back within two-and-a-half years, and that’s the rationale,” he said. “But as far as allegations and connections, I have no idea where that comes from, and to put that up there in public you need to be more specific and it needs to be proven.”

The public commentary on the matter ended there.

But Commissioner Zodrow, who has been embroiled in a heated race for Seat 3 with opponent Damon Lister, brought the issue back up at the conclusion of the meeting.

Safety Harbor Commissioner Andy Zodrow.

During his Commission Report, Zodrow, who was the lone lawmaker to vote against the project, said he had ongoing concerns about a couple of aspects of the deal.

“I’m actually in favor of being able to use these funds for development agreements,” he said. “My issue with that development was the city just wasn’t nearly getting enough.”

Zodrow went on to say “that entire property is being paved over, every square inch. Every tree is being removed. I think the reduction in height was four feet from the absolute maximum…but nobody really ever maximizes it. You don’t ever get everything.

“So the fact that we reduced it four feet, to me, was very distressing, for that amount of money and I didn’t see a whole lot else that the city got out of it.”

Zodrow added that “fundamentally, he liked the project,” but he would have preferred the developer saved some trees and created more greenspace on the property; he then questioned how city staff agreed to allocate the CRA funds for the project.

Safety Harbor City Manager Matt Spoor.

“For the Development Agreement for the Bay to Bay property, was the CRA funding based on the new building? he asked. “What did the city rely on as far as the code for using those funds?”

After City Manager Matt Spoor replied, “state law,” City Attorney Alan Zimmet explained the legalities of the process.

“It’s really Chapter 163 that authorizes use of the funds and the resolution that the County Commission adopted…that authorises the city to have a CRA to begin with and authorizes the uses for the funds,” he said. “And so, in my determination, the use of the funds was consistent with both the statue and the resolution.

Zimmet added “staff worked to determine why this project should get funds. I just made a determination that it was legal.”

Zodrow responded by saying “that’s what I wanted to hear” before delving into his disproval of the developer removing three oak trees on the property without paying into the city’s tree fund.

“The fact they’re not paying into the fund and they’re just gonna plant three new trees, I’m very concerned about that,” he said.

To which spoor replied, “Everything they did was within the Tree Ordinance.”

A look at the preliminary site plan for the Bay to Bay mixed-use project in downtown Safety Harbor. (Credit: Bay to Bay Properties)

When reached for comment after the meeting, Zodrow reiterated he wasn’t accusing anyone of wrongdoing.

“The most important comment I would like to make is I do not believe the City acted illegally or inappropriately in negotiating a development agreement with the developer of the Second Avenue property,” Zodrow said via email.

“I support the use of CRA funds for projects that support the downtown business and quality of Main Street, ie. for the public benefit. I encourage the staff to negotiate these agreements in good faith and at arms length with developers for the public benefit.”

He continued, “As I mentioned during the public hearing during the approval of the agreement, I felt the public benefit of the concessions made by the developer were not sufficient to support the amount of funds provided to the developer. There seems to be some confusion by people that the developer has an automatic right to build to the Land Development Code provisions. That is not true. There are other considerations the City Commission must find to support the approval of land use decisions such at the Second Avenue development. Among them is the finding the project is compatible with adjacent land uses.

“Based on my opinion that the residential portion of the project was not compatible with the adjacent properties, I felt the payment from the CRA was excessive and not supportable. I also objected to the tree replacement provision but that is more of an issue pertaining to the current tree ordinance rather than this specific project. The main issue being that had the tree replacement been for like-kind trees, ie. Live Oaks, I could conceivably support the use of tree funds for engineering to maintain trees but this site has far more live oaks to be removed than replaced and still the entire payment of tree funds will be refunded to the developer.”

This graphic rendering from a massing study shows what the Bay to Bay mixed-use project could look like if it was built according to city code. (Bay to Bay Properties)

Joe Faw, co-founder and president of Bay to Bay, also weighed in on the matter.

Joe Faw.

“If we completely ignore politically charged comments and analyze the facts and process I would suggest that a Development Agreement, in conjunction with a site plan is as close as you can possibly get to a win-win,” Faw wrote via email, where he included a graphic of a massing-study that shows how the project could have been built according to city codes.

“To suggest the city made concessions is a complete misrepresentation of the facts and jeopardizes future developments where a Development Agreement should be considered. The essential items were publicly on 4 different occasions. Each time they were discussed and approved.

“Furthermore, we will not be deterred or become frustrated by misrepresentation of facts and will not engage in political rhetoric.  We are focused on delivering a quality project that further promotes a prosperous and vibrant downtown.”

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  1. To quote Tony Kushner “The great work begins.”
    We’ve seen what lies and corruption will get us, based on the outcome of last night’s election. Now we must use this as motivation to gather our strengths and resources, and keep the momuntum of a forward-moving, progressive community that supports not only trees and green spaces, but also local businesses, downtown walkability, and the right to live in your own version of paradise. Time to dig in our heels and prepare the way for better local government, gathering our numbers and SHOWING UP, to prove that change is not only good, but a necessary part of life.

  2. There is careless talk going on here and those perpetuating a false narrative against this mayor and our commission are reckless and hurtful to the community. This nonsense happens during an election and brings out the real dirty in some of our citizens. THE REAL DIRTY. What is worse to me is that we have a commissioner who is aligning himself with a group of people who use fear mongering and lies to get what they want while manipulating the citizens of this city. Some people foam at the mouth for dirty gossip and this is just that, dirty gossip and anyone who listens to it or is part of it is doing a great deal of damage to our community. What a pity. So tell me citizens of Safety Harbor….are you buying in to this dirty twisted bullying gossip or are you ready to continue to see some really good changes for our city. I for one am not going to be manipulated by Andy Z or the type of people he has chosen to align himself with.

  3. As a retired realtor, I have some experience in development…It is not logical to believe that the project will pay for itself. When additional people are added by increasing residential developments – this really increases the cost to city government for capital improvements and services by a greater amount than it will increase revenue. Public facilities; are impacted and roads; water and sewer systems; and police and fire protection all run up costs, and somebody has to pay for this costs. Here in Safety Harbor parkland use will be increased, and this the reason that there is development fees, so that the current residents don’t get stuck with the bill.. Otherwise, your can argue that every new project, new house, new addition that people build will “pay for it’self” through an increase in taxes. So, my question is then why doesn’t this city waive the fees for everybody? Why is this developer getting fees waived ? Something smells fishey to me.

    • Wel, most developers don’t give land back to the city for public parking, plant mature oaks as part of the site plan. Reduce the height of the building and increasing setbacks.

      It’s a reasonable question you ask about getting reimbursed some fees, but a simple google search and five minutes of your time is all it takes to read the development agreement. 🙂

    • Kim, you must have been in the residential field of real estate. As a Florida Broker for over 20 years and working in the commercial (mixed use) field for over 30 years in the great State of Florida, most municipalities work with developers whether it be credits in sewer impact fees, landscaping, parking, setbacks, signage, etc. It’s a give and take for both parties for the betterment of the project and community.

    • All growth and development are not created equal. …“Building Better Budgets: A National Examination of the Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth” examined data from 17 studies from around the country and found that denser smart growth development patterns generate an average of 10 times more tax revenue per acre compared to less dense conventional suburban development. The report also found that smart growth saves municipalities an average of 38 percent on the upfront cost of infrastructure and 10 percent on the annual cost of public services… The Faw development is gift to the SH—fiscally and aesthetically. Far from being a “strip mall” (Google and you’ll see), Faw’s architecturally-detailed, three-story, mixed use development aligns perfectly with the city vision, redevelopment plan, and existing development pattern. The decision to leverage this private investment with CRA funds to build signature buildings with a built in employer/employees, a five-year window for first floor retail, and luxury apartments (a missing product in SH), was sound. I hope that more public-private partnerships will be used to address blight on Main St and Philippe Parkway. I visualize charming, two-story buildings built where there are currently parking lots along the sidewalk. Slighty bigger buildings but infinitely better for creating a vibrant, walkable downtown (and greater tax revenues per acre).

    • It’s obvious that our boy mayor is in bed with the developer, typical sleazy politician posing for photo op’s (in pants that are too short) and handing out worthless awards to citizens who deserve a check rather than a cheap plaque from the Dollar store….

  4. Mr. Zodrow has long played fast and loose with the truth. In the last election, Mr. Zodrow held a sign, near my home on S. Bayshore that read “Help save the Post Office vote for …….. When I told him, this election had no bearing on the Post Office, it had already been decided, he smiled and shrugged. To all the people yelling kick back look up the facts. Your only angry because you didn’t do your due diligence. When we bought our home 15 years ago, we went to City Hall and looked over all the proposals and zoning of the City. It was all there.

  5. There are some people in life that feed off of being negative and disruptive. They lack control and influence in their personal lives and find it invigorating to stir things up, pass along rumors to other people because it is exhilarating. They can impress people with their passion for discovering “truths” and “conspiracies”. They love to pass along gossip to people who become spellbound and fascinated. That is how they get the attention they deserve. They don’t research facts, nor think logically about downtown and what the possibilities are on how to improve Safety Harbor. That is just how they roll, their lot in life. They get smart people to think and to double check their decisions – sort of a check and balance in our society. We hear their voices and are secretly embarrassed for them, and it’s ok. We’re ok, they’re ok. That is part of being human.

  6. So have Joe Ayoub answer about his connection to Faw and BAY TO BAY developers and see if there is a conflict of interest. What’s his take on this. Been here for 10 years. This is some crazy money grubbing deals.

    • Ricardo, do you realize that you are impugning the integrity of people you don’t even know, using facts that you do not even have? No moral person should ever do something like that.

  7. Andy Zudrow is the only one with any ” logical” reasoning and thought process. The ROI is not enough. It’s simple if you understand business, and have any analytical reasoning. Sorry Diaz – your only defense is “it’s preposterous”? Doesn’t make what they said true, but what it does say, once again just like all the crazy election tactics in this city, is that it doesn’t matter at all the concerns of the people, it’s just met with a superior harsh defense. Zudrow at least had a logical argument and tact in his thought process.
    This City is beyond confused. No wonder down town can not get it together long enough to be a thriving area.

    • If you are going to sing Andy’s praises you may want to learn how to spell his last name. The better last name on the ballot is Lister.

  8. Safety Harbor’s status quo group, who would rather rally for a diseased tree than for Main Street business, is back at it again.
    Last year they claimed then-mayor candidate Joe Ayoub was responsible for the Downtown condo project — despite the fact he wasn’t in office when the project was approved 15 years earlier. Then, when called on the untruths, they only double downed with bigger lies.
    Now, it’s second verse, same as the first.
    Alleging City Commission corruption and acceptance of paybacks WITHOUT the ability to provide a single shred of evidence is not only irresponsible and pathetic, it’s an insult to our entire community.
    It’s also simply lying.
    The only thing worse was commissioner Andy Zodrow then using the disgraceful political grandstanding as an opportunity to bust out a campaign rally.
    Safety Harbor is not the first community to use CRA funds as a proven tool to stimulate business and promote a downtown. And the process has been explained ad nauseam by city leaders, the city manager and city attorney.
    At this point, if someone can’t figure out the reasons the city offered incentives to Bay To Bay Properties — over the long haul, guaranteed to get way more back then it gave up — they aren’t trying. Those are the people who simply hate change and will say and do anything to live in the past.
    It’s all been downhill here since electricity and indoor plumbing.
    I don’t mind opposing views. But outright lies has got to stop. Even if it is a status quo tradition.

  9. The project will be great for the downtown area. But some people prefer to resist change. However, change in some form or another is inevitable. So let that change be for the better. This project is a step in that direction as I see it. As for cutting down trees, as with most people, i prefer to keep as many as possible. As luck would have it, the construction of almost every house in Safety Harbor, and every other community not located in the Plains of the Midwest resulted in the cutting down of trees. Good for Joe Faw, and good for the Commissioners who voted intelligently in favor of this project.

  10. David Pearson basically accused the commissioners of a felony by getting “paybacks”. I wonder if he will get one of Andy Zondrow’s famous letters threatening suit? Or is that just for littering? And when did it become a crime to be friends with a developer who was raised in Safety Harbor and is a part of the community???

    And kudos to Vice Mayor Diaz setting them straight.

    The entire scene was a chapter right out of Saving Safety Harbor’s playbook. They read the script from Public commments to Zodrow’s Closing comments. No Oscar for them. More like the Raspberry Award. This craziness needs to stop.

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