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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