Three hours and 15 speakers into a public hearing with many more signed up and ready to rip, the Lakeland City Commission had heard enough: Overwhelming public opposition may not qualify as “substantial and competent evidence” needed to deny a development proposal in a quasi-judicial proceeding under Florida statutes, but it can sure compel elected officials to find that “evidence.”
Which is exactly what the Lakeland City Commission did Monday when it cited building heights, density and projected Lake Miriam Drive traffic impacts as “not compatible” with existing development, tabling a final vote on a proposed 244-unit apartment complex at the Lake Miriam Square shopping center near the South Florida Avenue/Lake Miriam Drive intersection.
Atlanta-based Preferred Apartment Communities is seeking a zoning change from commercial to multi-family for a 12-acre portion of Publix-owned Lake Miriam Square as a needed precursor to initiating the project.
PAC’s site plan proposes four three-story, 43-foot tall buildings and two four-story, 54-foot buildings on the site, The complex will offer 244 studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments on the parcel, which is within Publix’s original 1993 Lake Miriam Shopping Center planned unit development.
The Lakeland Planning & Zoning Board on Feb. 15 approved the zoning change and site plan in a 3-2 vote, sending the proposal to the city commission. PAC requested a continuance from the scheduled March 21 public hearing after the commission held its first reading on March 7.
Monday’s public hearing was certain to draw neighborhood and area residents who have been vocally opposed to the project since it was proposed months ago.
Residents showed Monday in force — several dozen were prepared to voice their reasons for objecting to the proposed apartment complex Monday. After 15 had addressed the commission, enough “evidence” had been raised about the project’s compatibility for several commissioners to raise issues that would justify sending the proposal back for further tinkering.
PAC’s representatives quickly accepted the commission’s non-decision decision, meaning there will be another public hearing and, presumably, eventually, a final vote on the proposed project sometime in the coming months.
“We would ask to continue the hearing to go back and look at three stories” instead of the two four-story buildings proposed on the site, said attorney Elise Batsel of Tampa’s Stearns Weaver Miller representing PAC. ”If the commission is in concurrence, we should request a continuance.”
During its presentation, PAC reiterated previous contentions that a zoning change exchanging 40,000 square feet of commercial development that the parcel is currently zoned for with a 244-unit apartment complex would actually reduce projected traffic impacts on Lake Miriam Drive and its intersection with South Florida Avenue.
Traffic consultants and city planners, who noted the residential project would generate $446,519 more in impact fees than commercial development would, agree with the traffic projection studies.
Many residents do not. Projected traffic reductions have always been a tough sell to area residents who don’t see how the project will reduce pressure on already “constrained” and “failing” roads when traffic on Lake Miriam Drive and its intersection with South Florida Avenue is already untenable, a safety concern for students at nearby Lakeland Highlands Middle School and not complementary to the single-family homes in the area.
Publix’s 1993 plan allowed up to 180,000 square feet of commercial space. It has been amended several times, including 2002’s addition of 39,979 square feet of commercial space in the area where the apartments are now planned.
In 2018, a 34,000-square-foot LA Fitness Center was approved for the parcel but never built. Traffic consultant Michael Raysor of Wesley Chapel-based Raysor Transportation Consulting estimated with the fitness center, the shopping center would generate 3,224 car trips per day, including 276 during afternoon peak.
Working off that 2018 study, Raysor forecasts a 244-unit apartment complex would generate 1,328 daily and 104 afternoon peak trips — about 800 fewer external trips a day, including 72 trips less in afternoon peak traffic, his analysis contends.
Raysor said the “basis for trip generation” calculations is reference books produced by the Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE). “No one size fits all,” when it comes to projected traffic studies, but the ITE manuals and software programs are regarded as the best gauge for such projections in the industry, he said.
Several residents questioned the traffic studies, including a former county planner, a former Lakeland Code Enforcement board member and local construction contractor Chuck Hunt.
“Computers runs numbers, not common sense and (local) knowledge,” Hunt said. Lake Miriam Drive funnels traffic onto South Florida Avenue, he said: “You can’t take a funnel, a river and put a dam on it and expect it to run properly. I’d like to say it does not meet the smell test.”
Batsel noted that since filing its proposal, PAC has modified its site plan to add a second egress from the complex into Lake Miriam Square Shopping Center and towards South Florida Avenue, a pedestrian passage onto the sidewalk in the part of the complex closest to Lakeland Highlands Middle School and a bus stop on the south side of the shopping center.
She said under the requested zoning, PAC could request at least 264 units at 22 units per acre, Instead, it is seeking slightly more than 20 units per acre and leaving nearly four acres as an “open space” wetland and pond.
If the proposal is denied, Publix — which still owns the land as well as the approved 180,000-square-foot planned unit development — “by right” could sell or lease space in the parcel to an array of commercial users, including retailers, with little review, Batsel said.
“This property is going to be developed,” she said, adding that placing multifamily between a shopping center and single-family homes is a suitable “transition.”
“The proposal is consistent with the (city’s) comprehensive plan and compatible with surrounding development,” Batsel said. “The project will present less traffic in all scenarios than by what is allowed.”
In addition, she said, during the early part of the process, PAC had to make a case for why the zoning change would benefit the city. It did that and now, in this stage, the onus is on the commission to make a case for denying the coming change, not the other way around.
“I haven’t heard any evidence that says it should be commercially zoned,” she said.
But commissioners had questions, following through with questions raised by residents, including a general consensus that traffic data and calculations provided by engineers don’t calculate one scenario, either not building on the site at all or dramatically reducing density within the proposed complex.
Commissioners Philip Walker and Bill Read questioned the project’s two four-story tall buildings and its overall density.
Commissioner Stephanie Madden said it was “unfair” that state law precludes local governments from denying proposed development based on current road conditions and thanked area residents for providing the commission with the “substantial and competent evidence” it needs to at least delay the project.
Using those objections, Madden said she would not approve the project without better coordination with Polk County and Polk County Public Schools, calling on the city to “have some ownership in mitigating” impacts on Lake Miriam Drive to its terminus at Lakeland Highlands Boulevard.
Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said the commission is legally obligated to “work within the parameters of the law” and advised residents to “look at who we elect and send to Tallahassee.”
Commissioner Mike Musick said while the proposal meets all statutory criteria and is technically in compliance with the city’s comprehensive plan,” he questioned if it was “the most responsibly compliant development that can occur” on the site and called for the commission to “table this” for further study.
“We do need to see something that I can look at that the people I represent and they can give me a thumbs up,” he said.
Musick made a motion to continue the public hearing to allow the applicant to work with the city’s staff to modify the development plans and allow staff to develop additional mitigation options for Lake Miriam Drive. Walker seconded the motion and it passed unanimously.
Mayor Bill Mutz said the project “was ideal for this property” and that he preferred multifamily “over retail,” but said enough “evidence” had been presented to send the proposal back for modifications.
“We are not in a place where we can see this density makes compatibility sense,” he said. “I really would love to see another iteration. I am just concerned about it being too large for that setting. It’s going to be something. (That parcel) l guarantee will not be empty” for long.