CRA Looking at Ways to Increase Public Scrutiny of Land Deals

North Lake Mirror thumbnailCity commissioners heard howls of protest last week when they were about to vote on a contract to sell 10 vacant acres near the LPD headquarters to a private developer. Most of the complaints weren’t as much about the terms of sale or the developer’s intentions as much as a perception that the deal was being rushed through before members of the public had a chance to understand the plans and comment on them.

The besieged staff of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which negotiated the deal, responded that they faithfully followed the procedures that had been set, procedures that mirror other sales of city land.

But the director of the CRA and the advisory board that oversees the agency agree there may be ways to change the procedures to allow more public scrutiny.

The issue came up Thursday when the CRA Advisory Board met and reviewed questions raised about the proposed $3.7 million sale of the North Lake Mirror property to the Framework Group of Tampa.

(City commissioners ended up voting 4-3 last Monday to delay consideration of the land deal until Oct. 16 so that interested people could email comments about the project to City Manager Tony Delgado.)

Asked about ways to unveil a project to the public before it goes to the commission for a vote, CRA Director Nicole Travis said perhaps the city could handle land sales similar to zoning changes. In those cases, the topic is introduced during a “first reading,” and a vote is taken two weeks later after members of the public have a chance to comment.

The question is: what would trigger the two-reading process, she said, noting that many city land transactions are routine sales of easements and rights of way. “Maybe it’s the sale of land greater than 10 feet wide.”

Or perhaps the dollar amount of the sale would be the trigger for a second hearing, CRA Advisory Board Chairman Cory Petcoff offered.

Petcoff asked members of the advisory board to come up with recommendations about how to best engage the public in land sales and bring them to the group’s next meeting, scheduled for 3 p.m. Nov. 2 at City Hall.

Any changes in land-sales procedures would need to be approved by the City Commission.

City Commissioner Jim Malless, who is also a member of the CRA Advisory Board, addressed the issue Monday night at a candidate forum (he faces four opponents for his at-large seat) sponsored by the Cleveland Heights Neighborhood Association.

The Lake Mirror project drew a lot of attention because many people are concerned about what happens downtown, Malless said. The commission will soon vote on a proposal to sell a large tract near Lakeland Linder Regional Airport to Geico for a major expansion, he noted. Malless predicted that sale will draw little attention even though it has a similar impact on city finances.

The CRA Advisory Board had a few recommendations Thursday for the developer and the City Commission regarding the North Lake Mirror project to address some of the concerns expressed by citizens:

  • Allow the developer to increase the density above the current planned 306 apartments and townhouses by not charging extra for the land if more units are added.
  • Allow the City Commission to review and approve a more detailed site plan during the six-month due-diligence period.
  • Provide tax-increment financing only if the project is completed within three years.

Those recommendations have been presented to Framework Group, Travis said. If the developers agree to them, the recommendations will be incorporated into the deal the City Commission takes up Oct. 16. Even if the developers don’t agree, the commission will be informed of the recommendations, she said.