Lakeland city commissioners had to choose Tuesday between two very different visions for 30 undeveloped acres off Airport Road south of the Polk Parkway:
- On one side, a developer and city planners envision 300 apartments providing needed housing in southwest Lakeland for young professionals working for a growing number of businesses nearby.
- On the other side, homeowners foresee an ugly mass of 14 three-story apartment buildings creating traffic congestion and intrusion on their nearby quiet community.
After hearing arguments on both sides for six hours on Tuesday, commissioners gave the green light to the developers, Matcon Construction Services of Tampa, who want to substitute an apartment complex named Parkway Preserve for a previous plan that called for 142 townhouses on the property.
Commissioners voted 4-2 to approve zoning changes needed for the project at an intersection that forms the only entrance into Carillon Lakes, a community of mostly single-family homes geared to owners age 55 and above. Across the street is the entrance to Publix Super Markets’ corporate headquarters.
Voting in favor were Mayor Bill Mutz and Commissioners Stephanie Madden, Bill Read and Phillip Walker. Commissioners Sara McCarley and Chad McLeod voted no. Commissioner Don Selvage recused himself because of a business relationship with the law firm representing the developers.
“I believe in my heart of hearts it’s the best way to protect the value of Carillon Lakes,” Mutz said in explaining his vote. High-intensity development is sure to come to the Polk Parkway-Airport Road interchange and the high-end apartments that the area needs will be better for home values than commercial uses allowed in the area, he said.
The prospect of 300 apartments didn’t sit well with Carillon Lakes residents who filled the meeting, which had been moved from City Hall to Sikes Hall at the RP Funding Center to accommodate the expected large audience. They dressed in red shirts sporting large stickers with a symbol for “no 300.”
Carillon Lakes residents objected to the density of the development, the height of the buildings and the impact on traffic on Carillon Lakes Boulevard. They argued that renters don’t care nearly as much about their homes or communities and that apartment dwellers would walk past the guardhouse at the entrance of Carillon Lakes to use the established neighborhood’s tennis courts, basketball courts and trails.
A central issue Tuesday night was the access to both the new and existing developments. The developer will pay to add turn lanes into the apartments, but as it stands now both will share two-lane Carillon Lakes Boulevard, both in and out.
The developer continues to seek approval from the state Department of Transportation for a separate connection from the apartments to Airport Road, although they’ve been turned down once already.
The protesters argued that the road will be impassable with people picking up their children at a school bus stop and ignoring traffic rules. Even worse, they said, emergency vehicles, particularly fire trucks, may not be able to get in and lives could be jeopardized.
McLeod said he would have voted for the zoning change had there been more clarity over whether the developers will ultimately be able to access Airport Road directly from the complex.
Brent Geohagan, a lawyer representing Carillon Lakes residents, said a change in zoning should not be taken lightly and doubling the capacity of a development merits a “no” vote.
Commissioners were required by law to be in a quasi-judicial role, meaning in this instance they were required to judge the merits of the legal case.
City Attorney Palmer Davis guided the process, particularly through some tricky legal hoops when commissioners voted.
One issue that Davis said may end up in court is a dispute over whether the developer has the right to alter Carillon Lakes Boulevard, which is owned by the home owners’ association. A decision on the easement issue favoring the HOA could scuttle the project.
The opponents of the plan had much to say during their segment of the meeting. Remarks by residents were routinely applauded by the crowd.
Attorney Tim Campbell, representing Matcon, acquiesced on numerous issues, most notably an increase in parking spaces. He said he was sympathetic to the concerns of the residents.
One protester told commissioners that putting trees up to buffer the development is “like lipstick on a pig.” Another said it would take 15 years to grow the trees.
Another said Matcon paid for a survey “so you would get the answers you want.”
And another said she didn’t want to live next to what later could become federally subsidized Section 8 housing.
That really perturbed Walker, who voted for the new development. “You’re looking at a Section 8 success, he said. “I’m tired of hearing it.” His remarks elicited applause.
The meeting was polite until the bitter end.
After the vote, with Mutz telling them he wanted to speak with them, protesters streamed from Sikes Hall. Some were hissing and booing.
MORE COVERAGE: The Ledger
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