Is Clearwater too easy for developers? City Council and Candidates’ Debate
CLEARWATER — There are a few development battles that still sting for neighborhood defenders like Carl Schrader.
An epic loss came in 2019, when the Community Development Board approved a seven-story, 80-unit condo on Edgewater Drive offered by Valor Capital. Neighbors fought it off, saying the structure was obviously out of place with their surrounding one- and two-story homes. But council approved the project with increased height, an administrative judge denied the residents’ appeal, and the condo is now under construction.
“We always feel like it’s already been decided and it’s already been done when we get a chance to talk,” said Schrader, president of the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition, about a project.
The age-old battle of neighborhoods vs. development is nothing new, but it was an undercurrent in the March 15 election, where six candidates vying for two city council seats discussed protecting neighborhoods in their way.
Aaron Smith-Levin, who left the Church of Scientology in 2014, has centered his platform for Open Seat 5 on addressing alleged church abuse and its impact on downtown real estate . But he said he was also inspired to chase the city council’s 2018 approval of two self-storage warehouses where code wouldn’t allow them, including one in his Skycrest neighborhood.
At a recent candidates’ forum, the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition asked candidates how they would react to the perception that the city has granted code flexibility too freely to accommodate developers‘ plans.
Smith-Levin proposed that the city add three seats to the seven-member Community Development Board. The local planning body has the power to grant waivers on certain aspects such as height and setbacks, but makes recommendations to council regarding more complex zoning and land use changes. Smith-Levin said the additional members should be laypersons, “who are not developers, lawyers or lobbyists” to balance the professional appointments the board makes to the board.
“If I win a board seat, we’ll have a board that won’t be in the developers’ pocket,” Smith-Levin said.
Artist and activist Lina Teixeira, also a candidate for Seat 5, said she supports adding seats to the board to include more diverse backgrounds. She also said the city should give neighbors more notice before a development comes to council for a vote.
She called the development code, written in 1999, “outdated” and said it needed to be revised because “it no longer works for the world we live in now.”
Jonathan Wade, also a candidate for Seat 5, said he wanted to have more meetings with residents to get their feedback before council decides on development issues.
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“The city has been successful many times and many times wrong, so we have to be consistent,” said Wade, a longtime pastor and activist in North Greenwood.
Council member David Allbritton, who is seeking a second term in seat 4, noted that he was open to changes to improve the system, but the code offered flexibility for a reason. He said the city gives “everyone the right to build according to our development code.”
“If you take flexibility away from everyone, you’re going to find it more problematic when an average citizen wants to do something to complete their project, so be careful what you wish for,” said Allbritton, a retired entrepreneur. .
Community activist Maranda Douglas, who is challenging Allbritton in Seat 4, said there should be more buffers between neighborhoods and development. She noted his advocacy against a 2020 referendum that would have allowed a developer to build a light industrial complex on the city-owned Landings Golf Club.
Sixty-one percent of voters rejected the proposal. Allbritton supported the light industrial plan, which was also backed by the city’s economic development and housing department for the jobs on offer and boosting the local economy.
“I think we could also increase the early and minimum notification times so that neighbors can engage in these conversations and really have a platform to address their concerns in the community,” Douglas said.
Gerry Lee, a retired chief technology officer also running for Seat 4, said he did not support giving companies an advantage over ordinary residents. He also noted his disagreement with the city council’s approval of two storage warehouses in 2018 in areas where code did not allow them.
Meanwhile, council members have their own philosophical debate about the Community Development Council.
Planning and Development Director Gina Clayton last week called on the board to defer its vote to fill three vacancies on the board. The city received eight nominations, but none had the background of the architect, civil engineer and real estate attorney who vacated the seats.
The remaining four members include a construction manager, an environmental engineer, a real estate broker and a labor lawyer. Clayton said she wanted more time to post vacancies to professional organizations and on Linkedin to attract more applicants.
But what kind of experience applicants should have has been hotly debated.
Board members Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker said they want to appoint more lay people to the board who are not lawyers, developers or other types of real estate.
The board is responsible for applying the code to projects to determine if they are appropriate. Beckman said in this case, the city should use more laypeople to make development decisions the same way courts use laypersons on juries to interpret the law.
“Why do they have to have that work experience if they’re just interpreting code?” Beckman said. “It comes in when there’s a judgment with questions about flexibility or interpretation of (standards like) ‘must conform to the aesthetics of the surrounding area’… Those things are where we need ordinary people are able to look at things like that.”
Mayor Frank Hibbard noted the complexity of the applications the council reviews, making it important for members to have expertise in areas related to construction and development. He pushed back against the idea that architects and engineers cannot simultaneously care about neighborhoods and the environment.
“I want it to be a diverse board, but I also want it to be filled with people who actually understand the plans and the design and the density and the intensity and the mass and the traffic and all the ramifications that go with that” , Hibbard said.
The code states that the board should seek community development board members with diverse economic, social and professional representation and that these members should include people with experience in the fields of “architecture, planning, architectural landscape, engineering, construction, planning and land use and real estate law”. .”
“We have to follow our code,” Clayton said in a recent interview. “And if the city council wants to have a different type of make-up, then the code should be changed.”