Once headed for preservation, 400 acres in Hillsborough now within mobile home park company’s reach

Article Courtesy of  The Tampa Bay Times

By Tracy McManus

Published April 8, 2018

CLEARWATER — Two years ago this month, the city began working with Hillsborough County’s preservation arm to ensure 425 acres of pasture it owns in Keystone would be conserved forever as green space.

Instead, a multibillion dollar mobile home park operator is now poised to buy the property after being the only bidder during a process that ended Thursday.

Offering just over the $6.4 million appraised value, Equity LifeStyle Properties was the lone bidder Thursday on Clearwater’s property. The city will now draw up a sale contract which will likely go to the City Council for approval next month, according to purchasing manager Alyce Benge.

It was a convoluted and bureaucratic twist that brought it here.

Hillsborough’s Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program offered $4.6 million for the land Dec. 15 but its offer was contingent on Clearwater deeding a portion to the neighboring Silver Dollar Shooters Club. The club, which borders Clearwater’s land off Patterson Road and is owned by Equity LifeStyle, had previously talked to ELAPP about acquiring roughly 20 acres it needs to resolve several zoning violations.

The City Charter would have allowed Clearwater to sell to ELAPP directly because it is a government entity. But it required the entire 425 acres to go to a public bid if it were to issue a deed to a private business for any portion, according to City Attorney Pam Akin.

ELAPP acquisition manager Kurt Gremley said the county had concerns about taking on the 20 acres bordering the shooting range because the land might be contaminated with lead from stray bullets. And ELAPP would not be allowed to buy all 425 acres and then convey 20 acres to the shooting range because the program’s rules require land it acquires to remain under its care forever.

This aerial view shows a 425-acre tract that the City of Clearwater had planned to sell for preservation. The vacant pasture land sits north and east of the Silver Dollar Shooters Club, along Patterson Road in the Odessa area. Complications are keeping the city from selling the land to Hillsborough County, which would preserve it for green space. Instead, the likely buyer is a multibillion-dollar company that owns the shooters club and a neighboring RV park.

With ELAPP’s unworkable offer, the city was unwilling to sell ELAPP only about 400 acres because it would be left with a land-locked portion that would be inaccessible to another buyer if Silver Dollar changed its mind, according to Assistant Director of Economic Development and Housing Chuck Lane.

So although Equity LifeStyle needed only roughly 20 acres, being the largest operator of manufactured home communities in North America, it had the resources to buy all 425.

Representatives for Equity LifeStyle did not respond to comment when contacted through their attorney Ed Armstrong.

Gremley said ELAPP, which has acquired more than 61,000 acres of environmentally sensitive habitat since 1987 and preserved it for recreation and wildlife, did not bid on the property because its appraisal of the land came in lower than the city’s. The program’s rules prohibit buying above their appraised values.

Gremley said Thursday that he has not heard from Equity LifeStyle if the company will turn around and sell its unneeded portion to ELAPP. As a voluntary program, Gremley said it’s not the program’s role to pressure landholders into selling.

"My crystal ball isn’t that good," he said.

Clearwater’s 425 acres were first nominated to ELAPP as a candidate for preservation in 2011. The property connects to the Brooker Creek Buffer Preserve, which connects to the Lake Dan and Lake Frances Preserve north of Tarpon Springs Road.

With Clearwater’s portion added to the preservation cluster, the connection would total more than 10,000 acres, according to an ELAPP analysis.

After buying the land in the early 1980s, Clearwater has used the acreage for dumping treated sludge from the city’s wastewater treatment plants and most recently leased it out as grazing pasture for cattle. Negotiations with ELAPP began in earnest in April 2016.

To Courtney Murphy, North Pinellas conservation team lead for the Suncoast Sierra Club, the Equity LifeStyle bid is another threat to ever disappearing greenspace.

"It might be 425 acres here in Tampa Bay, but as a state, if you look at all these sales that go through one by one, we are slowly paving over our entire state," Murphy said. "We are losing that biodiversity to keep our wetlands intact and ensure future Floridians have an opportunity to experience natural Florida."

But the potential sale to a multibillion dollar mobile home park developer brings further concerns for neighbors.

The shooting range is in violation with Hillsborough County for adding a five-stand field and two skeet fields that do not have the required 900-foot safety zone. It also added three trap fields on an adjacent parcel not approved by its zoning plan.

The board on March 9 gave Silver Dollar 60 days to come into compliance, and a rehearing requested by the business is scheduled for April 20.

Kim Paulson, who lives in Garden Lakes Circle nearby, said noise from the national tournaments and daily practices are intolerable.

She worries Equity Lifestyle having control of 400 more acres will only worsen the problem.

The company’s track record also concerns her. Last year, Equity LifeStyle settled three lawsuits in California filed by residents. In one park, residents claimed they were plagued by sewage backups, potholes, electrical blackouts and random water cutoffs, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

"We are not trying to shut them down, we are trying to bring them to a level that can coexist with the neighborhood," Paulson said, who lives in her childhood home. "We are literally being driven from our homes to find peace and quiet."