The Lakeland City Commission Monday denied a proposed zoning change that would allow a 46-foot tall, 102,675-square-foot “mini warehouse/self-storage facility with outdoor RV storage” to be built on a 4.33-acre parcel on Harden Boulevard a little north of the entrance to Grasslands.
But they left the door open for Cogent Capital Management to resubmit its plan without needing to go through the city’s planning process from scratch.
After commissioners voted 5-2 against the proposed precursor zoning change, they followed with another 6-1 vote to deny the zoning “without prejudice” after a Cogent executive said she would like to meet with nearby homeowners about reducing the scale of the project.
Commissioners Chad McLeod and Mike Musick were the “yes” votes for the proposed zoning change. Commissioner Stephanie Madden was the lone dissenter in allowing Cogent to address issues raised by nearby Grasslands residents without being required do so as a major modification to the pending warehouse/self-storage project.
View project documents here or at the end of this article: city staff report, developer’s presentation and the proposed city ordinance.
Nicole Blajan, Cogent’s president of acquisitions, secured that second vote when she said her company would be willing to “get rid of the RV parking,” reduce height from three stories to two, work with nearby homeowners associations and “have an open meeting with the whole community” to resolve concerns.
The 4.33-acre parcel is on the west side of Harden Boulevard and would have an address of 2575 Harden Blvd. It is north of the Azalea Park senior apartments, south of the Beacon Terrace mobile home park, and east of the Grasslands Muirfield Village condominiums.
The parcel has a Residential High land-use designation with its zoning approved under a planned unit development with the city’s 1987 Oakbridge Development of Regional Impact.
Over the years, several development proposals for the lot have been proposed but stymied by issues on the property, which includes a pond designed for stormwater retention, a 30-foot drainage easement, and access to Harden Boulevard restricted to one “right in, right out” passage.
Chuck Barmby, the city’s transportation and development review manager, said the lot has a “long history” of stymied development proposals dating back to 1993 because there “definitely is a long list of issues related to this parcel.”
The property’s current PUD zoning, last amended in 2018, allows for 6,790-square-feet of “highway commercial” uses in the former Grasslands sales office, a 114-unit Adult Congregate Living Facility (ACLF) on the Azalea Park parcel, and a 100-bed assisted living facility with a memory care unit.
Cogent’s proposed zoning change would eliminate the retail and residential “entitlements” on the property and replace it with the warehouse/self-storage business, a use that would reduce traffic impacts — all agreed — but, as five residents of nearby Grasslands subdivisions told commissioners, would be out of character with the area.
Muirfield Village Condominium Association President Tonya Gibson told commissioners, “A warehouse in the middle of four neighborhoods is just not the right use of the land” and is unneeded with a storage business across Harden Boulevard and another one within a mile of the project.
“We are going to have a view of something” eventually on that property from their homes, Gibson conceded, but a three-story storage warehouse “in the middle of our community, we think is unacceptable.”
Barmby said of 16 “mini” warehouse/self-storage businesses in the city or being built, Cogent’s proposal would be one of four directly abutting residential neighborhoods. He said Cogent’s site plan includes a 130-foot wide buffer and “from a traffic standpoint, a much lower generator” than either approved or permitted uses on the lot.
Commissioners Philip Walker and Bill Read expressed reservations about allowing a large warehouse in a residential area. Madden questioned the wording. “This isn’t a ‘mini’ warehouse,” she said, “100,000-square-feet sounds like a large warehouse to me, especially in the middle of a residential area.”
Attorney Tim Campbell, representing Cogent, said the company has developed 4 million square feet of storage, industrial and multi-family properties over the last 35 years across the country and would not be investing in the proposal if marketing analyses didn’t show there was a need.
Cogent is “not going to come into a market and build a facility if there is not a need. There is a growing need for housing in Lakeland and a corresponding need for storage. It is a very big need in Lakeland, and in this area of Lakeland,” he said. “These things are located in the vicinity of rooftops.”
Blajan noted that a recent market survey determined storage businesses within a mile of Grasslands were at 96 percent occupancy.
Campbell said the “parcel has sat there for some time” with various development proposals over the years falling by the wayside, including “a major hospital chain” that tentatively planned to develop the site with “stormwater under pavement and a stacked parking garage” before opting out because road “access didn’t work for them.”
The warehouse would generate 50% fewer morning trips and 30% fewer afternoon traffic trips than a 114-unit ACLF and a 100-bed ALF, he said, noting the city is stressing “low-traffic” generating development “and that is exactly what we have before you today.”
Musick said the project “checked a lot of boxes for me” because it won’t generate much traffic, its proposed design “looks a lot like business offices” and its extensive buffering should mitigate how visible the structure will be from nearby homes.
Madden said Cogent’s design should set “a new standard for warehouse design” but said she was “compelled to vote no today” because the proposal would stray from the currently approved plans’ emphases on medical-residential development.
Mayor Bill Mutz agreed. “I look at this project as being well-conceived,” he said, praising Cogent’s architectural designs before noting, “It is also 46 feet tall. I just think it is premature for us to change” the DRI’s zoning from “medical residential” to commercial, even if not generates less traffic.
“I’m not ready to give up on this parcel,” Mutz said.