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Commission Approves Firmenich Proposal By 3-2 Vote

After months of meetings and hours of discussions, the Richman Group of Florida's proposed Safety Harbor apartment complex project is one step closer to becoming a reality.

The Safety Harbor City Commission voted to approve the Richman Group of Florida's latest proposal for the Firmenich property by a vote of 3-2 Monday night.

Mayor Joe Ayoub, Commissioner Nina Bandoni and Commissioner Richard Blake voted in favor of the proposal, with Commissioner Nancy Besore and Vice Mayor Cliff Merz voicing nay votes.

The newest proposal, which was submitted to the city by the developer late last week, calls for a 246-unit apartment complex with no buildings taller than three stories, a reduction of 30 units and one story from the previous plan.

"I am very happy with the modifications that were made," Mayor Ayoub said. "And I like the assurances by the applicant that it will be a high-quality project."

Despite a procession of 30 residents protesting the plan during the meeting, the decision ultimately came down to whether or not the commission believed the developer’s request followed the city’s land development standards.

Commissioner Bandoni went through each of the eight standards one by one before coming to her decision.

"I don't know how we can vote 'no' on these specific standards for review and not put ourselves in a position of having legal action taken against us."

Mayor Ayoub concurred.

"Looking at these eight standards, I think this project meets these eight standards," he said after the other commissioners had weighed in.

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But at least one resident as well as one commissioner specifically said they felt the proposal violates one or more of the standards.

Steve Rosenthal presented what he believed was evidence the plan does not meet Standard #5, which states, "The amendment will not create an isolated district unrelated to the scale and character of the adjoining uses."

"On October 4th, 2012, 'This is far enough away from the city that it's kind of like a community onto itself' was stated by one of the people on the board," he read. "Thus proves ... this project has not met at least one half of Standard #5."

Commissioner Besore also said she believed the proposal did not meet Standard #5, among others.

"I don't think this fits (number) three because of our goal of inclusiveness," she said of the standard which states, "The amendment is consistent with the goals, objectives and policies of all elements of the City's Comprehensive Plan.

"I understand we want to welcome people ... but I see their locked community as a moat locking us away from them. So I have a problem with three, and I have a problem with five, and I'm still not certain about six."

In the end it didn't matter, as Commissioner Richard Blake's take swung the vote in the developer's favor.

"I don't see any issues in regards to five and six," Blake, a real estate agent by trade, said in response to Besore's comments. "I do not believe it will adversely affect the property values whatsoever."

At this time the once packed hall started to empty out, with many residents mumbling comments on the way out the door.

Russell Norman, who has studiously researched this issue for months, said he plans to explore options moving forward.

"We may reconvene and see if there's anything legally we can do," he said afterwards.

Robert Pergolizzi, the spokesperson for the Richman Group, said he was happy with the decision.

"We're pleased. We believe we're going to have a project that fits in perfectly with the City of Safety Harbor," he said.

"We believe the residents that will live here will be patronizing the businesses of downtown Safety Harbor, and this will benefit the community as a whole."

Mayor Ayoub said he hopes the residents who are against the project will eventually see this development as a positive for the city.

"If you look at history, there tends to be a pattern in the process of getting approval that people are against it," he said. "I think when they see how nice the project is, they're going to be pleased with the decision we made."

"At the end of the day I'm confident we made the right decision."

The Firmenich proposal will next go before the Pinellas Planning Council before moving on to the Board of County Commissioners.

Correction: A previous edition of this article said the new proposal called for no buildings taller than four stories. The deal actually calls for no buildings taller than three stories. A change has been made to reflect the correction.

Okay Harborites, with the Firmenich issue settled for now, we want to hear how you feel about the decision. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Harborite February 19, 2013 at 02:51 PM
I would like to thank Commissioner Nancy Besore and Vice Mayor Cliff Merz for standing up for the people last night. I would also like to thank the residents of Safety Harbor who contacted City Hall and came out to protest the excessively large Richman Group proposals. If it hadn't been for these resident's efforts to protest the prior proposals, we would have 4-story apartment buildings with 296 units at SR 590 and McMullen Booth Rd. It was unfortunate that this Richman Group proposal passed the City Commission last night. At a minimum, the Richman Group should have been asked to minimize the height of the apartment buildings to two stories and the number of apartments to 200 units. I hope that all Safety Harbor residents remember this Commission vote when they vote in the next City elections.
Gisela Bennie February 19, 2013 at 05:08 PM
In the end, all the efforts of S.H. citizens did not seem to matter. There wasn't even one additional concession last night, except for changing the 10 year ... commitment to 20 (can't tremember the wording). And I agree with Bob Saltzman's question: Why is the Richman Group 'so hot for this property'?
Terrance February 19, 2013 at 05:59 PM
I Believe the Richmond Group is so hot for this property because Safety Harbor is a great place to live and they are well aware of the number of people that would love to live here. I thank the mayor and the other two commissioners who had the foresight in approving this proposal for the good of all of Safety Harbors residents.
Michael February 19, 2013 at 07:14 PM
Mayor Ayoub and rubberstamp Blake were predictable, the Commissioner I hoped would stick to her guns from the previous meeting was Commissioner Bandoni, who asked for closer to 200 units, which would have created far less traffic and ticked off fewer tax paying voter residents. As I saw it, the city attorney consoled the commissioners with dire warnings of possible lawsuits from Firmenich and Richman, if they didn't get their proposal approved. Let's remember in a few years whose expert opinions hold up to the reality of added traffic congestion, fewer tax dollars from an unkempt rental complex and have the commissioners who voted for this project back up our loses of home values and revenue lost due to reduced property values. I for one will aggressively pursue lower taxes on my property. While I'm on the issue of traffic I need to ask the question again "Why is it that the only right hand turn off MacBooth without a turn lane from the Bayside bridge up north of East Lake on both north and south bound sides of the road is at Main St headed east? We tax payers paid to beautify the entrance, but couldn't have better access to downtown via Main Street. It seems to me business owners would wonder about that question as well. The entrance to Safety Harbor should have easy access as well as a welcoming entry. SR590 is not the primary path to downtown, at least not to visitors coming from MacBooth regardless of signs. You tell me, what brings more visitors, signs or easy access?
Michael February 19, 2013 at 07:45 PM
I wonder if it will be necessary to protect ourselves from the city commission and rampant uncontrolled development to gate OHP? I never wanted to live in a gated subdivision, but there might be a need to gate or move on down the road as traffic and other undesirable issues crop up. I won't subject my comfort or safety to an unfeeling and unsympathetic commission more concerned with developing than safety of its citizens. I know OHP has residents more capable and qualified than some the current commission. Its never too early to start looking for a new mayor either. One that won't be so easily manipulated.
Mike Shaw February 19, 2013 at 07:56 PM
I question the motivation of one of the commissioners "yes" vote....enough said!
Mike Shaw February 19, 2013 at 08:03 PM
I certainly will! Vote them out! Further concessions should have been made.
Mike Shaw February 19, 2013 at 08:04 PM
Yes!!
David Conkle February 19, 2013 at 08:36 PM
Harbortownie you don't appear to have a clue, Richland Group or whomever owns the property will pay property taxes to the city, the businesses will pay an annual business license fee and all other sales taxes go to the county and state. Of course, Firmenenich was paying property taxes and it will be interesting to see how much of a property tax increase there really is in this for the city from this development scheme. of course, the new renters will increase water and sewer usage, put more kids in our already crowded schools and increase traffic on SR 590 and McMullen Booth. The new businesses will be competing against many businesses that are already struggling to get by in our current economy. And less we forget, what about the wetlands that will be paved over through the use of mitigation credits? You shop where ever you want Harbortownie, the rest of us will continue to support the local businesses that are here already .
David Conkle February 19, 2013 at 08:42 PM
Terrance, Safety Harbor is a great place to live because of it's quaintness and small town feel. You obviously have not been following this debacle because what Ayoub, Bandoni and Blake did last night was not for the good of all Safety Harbor residents and these bums should be thrown out of office.
David Conkle February 19, 2013 at 08:54 PM
Did anyone besides myself find it unusual that City Hall was closed all day due to President's Day and the commissioners had the meeting last night. I was talking to a friend who summized that they wore everyone down the last meeting and then scheduled this meeting on a national holiday in the hope that very few residents would show up to protest. Makes one wonder about the manipulative timing, doesn't it. Let's all vote Ayoub, Bandoni and Blake out of office next election as they certainly showed last night that the citizens of Safety Harbor don't matter to them much.
Mike Shaw February 19, 2013 at 09:02 PM
Standard: The property CANNOT create an isolated community. It is a gated community with it's own theater and internet cafe.....how much more "isolated" does it have to be to be considered ISOLATED?
Michael February 19, 2013 at 09:31 PM
Its all so vague. The McMullen-Booth office complex. Does it have access to the green preserve area? Will there be walls at the southern border of OHP? Who will this isolated community protect the dwellers or the outside community? The more questions the more foul the whole process.
Barbara Walker February 19, 2013 at 10:13 PM
Having this on a national holiday was unacceptable.
Dan Pressler February 19, 2013 at 10:57 PM
one of the most effective ways to stop this will probably be to get the EPA involved as it is my understanding there are wetlands on the property
Barbara Walker February 20, 2013 at 12:43 AM
As far as I know there is no net loss of wetlands. My biggest concern is that it is a whole ecosystem that includes wetlands and adjacent uplands. Plus it has been undisturbed for a long time so the potential to have wildlife that shouldn't be disturbed is pretty high. There could be rare and endangered plants in there too, but I guess we'll never know. The footprint is still too big to be consistent with the comprehensive plan. Are the buildings going to be green buildings? Are they putting in permeable surfaces for pavement?
Desi February 20, 2013 at 12:53 AM
Conkle - the businesses in this community stood up for this project so are you going to boycott them too?
Susan February 20, 2013 at 02:04 AM
Let's start with Planning & Zoning who approved the plan first. Two of the current members were reappointed last night with no public input. We need a two year term limit and a rule that a member cannot file their own or their business requests while they serve on the board. The city had many qualified residents volunteer to serve on that board and they were ignored in favor of the long serving members. Every qualified resident should have a chance to to be an active member of this community. That can't happen when a few are allowed to monopolize the board.
Harborite February 20, 2013 at 02:54 AM
Desi, How do you know that all of the local businesses stood up for this project? Did you interview all of them? Some of the business owners have actually left comments on the Patch opposing the excessively large Richman Group proposal. I agree with David Conkle. I will not support any business owned by the Richman Group because they are a huge corporation that bullies small cities like Safety Harbor with excessive development proposals and then threatens to sue if they don't get their way. Like David, I will always support our local small businesses, but I will not support any businesses owned by real estate developers who only look at maximizing profit at the expense of the local residents.
Barbara Walker February 20, 2013 at 03:32 AM
@harborite - Yup, Walmart did the same thing in Tarpon Springs.
Robert Saltzman February 20, 2013 at 12:16 PM
"I don't know how we can vote 'no' on these specific standards for review and not put ourselves in a position of having legal action taken against us." Commissioner Bandoni said. The old saying about you can't fight City Hall has been turned around City Hall has been sued so many times it is gun shy. Richman Group has deep pockets deep enough to sue and put the City in a position of defending "its rights". The residents did not have the money or the time to have their own studies done, the quasi traffic study done by Commissioner Merz although noble was not considered scientific. There are just too many variables going on here. But it all comes down to we don't want to be sued so we better give them what they want. It is only a matter of time before they come asking for variances and we will see the Commission be squeezed into a "well ok position". I hope I am around to see it come to fruition and I hope it's a wonderful project, with birds singing and people flocking downtown to support our businesses as the traffic flows incisively free as the wind. But deep in my dark heart I don’t think that will happen!
David Conkle February 20, 2013 at 12:33 PM
Desi, who are the businesses besides yourself that supported this development? We know that Brady's supported it because the owner's wife spoke at the commissioners meeting in favor of approving this bad for Safety Harbor idea. Are you saying here that we should develop every bit of green space available in Safety Harbor to benefit the business community at the expense of all the residents or what?
Dee Dokumaci February 20, 2013 at 01:40 PM
Good Morning Bobby :) Spoken like a true champ as always, we all know it wont be a wonderful project, the birds are not singing & people will not be flocking downtown to support businesses as for the traffic it is more disaster waiting to happen, now I look at it this way what a huge shame & disaster that a huge money hungry corporation won especially one that has other properties that are hot spots for undesirable elements, my question to the 3 commissioners, have you done your homework on the goings on of other properties Richman owns?? How can you ignore facts about those poorly operated communities Richman owns?? How sure are you that when Richman fails to rent the units that it will not become another section 8 property?? How can you be sure Richman will not sell to another corporation which will turn this property into an undesirable community?? here's my favorite questions if you are so sure this project is the greatest development then would you live right next to it & how will you react when your dream home which sits next to this project loses its value & you are forced to sell it much less than what you purchased it for?? To the concerned residents of Safety Harbor my prayers goes out to all of you, please don't give up, you may have lost the battle but you haven't lost the war, explore all your rights, form a citizens action group while you still have time! As a downtown business owner I don't support this project & doubt it will benefit businesses!
Mike Shaw February 20, 2013 at 03:25 PM
FYI: Commissioner Bandoni and Mayor Ayoub are up for re-election in March of 2014. Time for a change.
Dee Dokumaci February 20, 2013 at 03:50 PM
As I said in my last post to the concerned residents of Safety Harbor you may have lost the battle but you haven't lost the war, well good news you have a very good chance to continue your fight, here's why; "The Firmenich proposal will next go before the Pinellas Planning Council before moving on to the Board of County Commissioners." what a beautiful paragraph this is, do you realize there is safety in numbers for this as citizens of Pinellas county we may be able to really voice our opinions to a larger audience by getting the EPA, all nature lovers involved in this plus get Pinellas county officials to get a traffic analysis done on already overcrowded traffic on McMullen Booth Road so the real work begins now to get your voices heard, I am also very sure many Pinellas county citizens will object to this project as well, hey go get them tigers, here's your oppotunity to leap into action :)
Dee Dokumaci February 20, 2013 at 05:25 PM
Good deduction Mike unfortunately whether they get re-elected or not this project has been approved by them, I don't see if future newly elected officials can undo the damage, all remains to be seen ;)
Dee Dokumaci February 20, 2013 at 08:37 PM
Desi, I strongly disagree with you, as a Safety Harbor business owner, I am against this project so tired of seeing concrete jungle everywhere else, my true feeling is I will always support nature & to protect the endangered wild life, I support the residents of our town, sorry I never have & never will support any corporation who has dollar sign in their eyes!
Desi February 21, 2013 at 12:39 AM
Conkle - why would you suggest I have business? I am a resident here in SH and love the green space but not opposed to new businesses or development. And yes I have talked to a lot of the business owners - most did not want to get involved because of negative response like most here posted. Sad but things have a way of working out for the best.
Desi February 21, 2013 at 12:53 AM
Dee - these big corporations with dollar signs in their eyes you do no like - who do you think brings you the grocery stores, doctor's offices and/or hospitals??? It is the developer and yes they make a profit or at least they hope so. That is why you open a business and I assume that is why you went into business but then I should not have to tell you that. You own a business and I hope it brings a heavy profit for you. I have no ill feelings towards you and will not boycott you because we have different views. I just do not understand people stating they will not shop at a business because they may sign a lease with this new project. They probably will have no clue what went on before the first shovel is even in the ground. Just saying - don't judge the new businesses because of the Landlord. I would not judge your business even if I did not like the Landlord or the building you are leasing.
Carolyn Stuart April 10, 2013 at 01:18 PM
Why do people vote for realtors? They are only promoting business for their industry and don't look out for the community!

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