Three hours and 15 speakers in a public hearing with plenty more registered and ready to tear up, the Lakeland City Commission had heard enough: Overwhelming public opposition may not qualify as necessary ‘substantial and competent evidence’ to deny a development proposal in a quasi-judicial proceeding under Florida law, but it certainly may require elected officials to find that “evidence.”
That’s exactly what the Lakeland City Commission did on Monday when it cited the building heights, density and projected traffic impacts of Lake Miriam Drive as “not compatible” with existing development, filing a final vote. on a 244-unit apartment complex project in place of Lake Miriam. mall near the South Florida Avenue/Lake Miriam Drive intersection.
Atlanta-based Preferred Apartment Communities wants a rezoning from commercial to multi-family for a 12-acre portion of Lake Miriam Square, owned by Publix, as a necessary precursor to launching the project.
PAC’s site plan proposes four 43-foot-high three-story buildings and two 54-foot four-story buildings on the site. The complex will offer 244 studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments on the plot, which is part of the unit development planned by Publix in 1993 for the Lake Miriam Shopping Center.
On February 15, the Lakeland Planning & Zoning Board approved the rezoning and site plan by a 3-2 vote, sending the proposal to the city commission. The PAC requested an extension to the public hearing scheduled for March 21 after the committee held its first reading on March 7.
Monday’s public hearing was certain to draw in neighborhood and area residents who have opposed the project since it was proposed months ago.
Residents showed in force on Monday – several dozen were ready to voice their reasons for opposing the proposed apartment complex on Monday. After 15 went to the commission, enough “evidence” had been raised about the project’s compatibility for several commissioners to raise questions that would warrant sending the proposal back for further tweaking.
PAC representatives quickly accepted the panel’s decision of no decision, which means there will be another public hearing and, presumably, possibly a final vote on the proposed project 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 agrees, we should ask for an extension.”
During its presentation, PAC reiterated previous claims that a rezoning exchanging 40,000 square feet of commercial development for which the parcel is currently zoned with a 244-unit apartment complex would actually reduce the projected impacts on the traffic on Lake Miriam Drive and its intersection with South Florida Avenue. .
Traffic consultants and planners, who noted that the residential project would generate $446,519 more in impact costs than the commercial development, agree with the traffic projection studies.
Many locals don’t. The projected traffic reductions have always been a tough sell to area residents who don’t see how the project will reduce pressure on already “stressed” and “failing” roads when traffic on Lake Miriam Drive and its intersection with South Florida Avenue is already untenable, a safety issue for students at nearby Lakeland Highlands Middle School and not complementary to single-family homes in the area.
Publix’s 1993 plan authorized up to 180,000 square feet of retail space. It has been amended several times, including the addition in 2002 of 39,979 square feet of retail space in the area where apartments are now planned.
In 2018, a 34,000 square foot LA fitness center was approved for the plot but was never built. Traffic consultant Michael Raysor of Raysor Transportation Consulting, based in Wesley Chapel, estimated that with the fitness facility, the mall would generate 3,224 car trips per day, including 276 during the afternoon rush hour.
From this 2018 study, Raysor predicts that a 244-unit apartment complex would generate 1,328 daily trips and 104 afternoon peak trips, or approximately 800 fewer external trips per day, including 72 less in afternoon peak traffic, according to his analysis.
Raysor said the “baseline for trip generation” calculations are reference works produced by the Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE). “There is no one size fits all,” when it comes to projected traffic studies, but ITE manuals and software are considered the best indicator of 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 run 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 in it and expect it to work fine. I would like to say that it does not meet the smell test.
Batsel noted that since filing its proposal, PAC has amended its site plan to add a second exit from the complex to the Lake Miriam Square Mall and to South Florida Avenue, a sidewalk zebra crossing in the portion of the complex closest to Lakeland Highlands Middle School and a bus stop on the south side of the mall.
She said that under the requested zoning, PAC could request at least 264 units at 22 units per acre. Instead, he seeks just over 20 units per acre and leaves almost 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 planned 180,000 square foot unit development – could “by right” sell or lease space within the parcel to a range of commercial users. , including retailers, with little review, says Batsel.
“This property is going to be developed,” she said, adding that placing a multifamily between a strip mall and single-family homes is a fitting “transition.”
“The proposal is consistent with the overall (city) plan and compatible with the surrounding development,” Batsel said. “The project will present less traffic in all scenarios than what is permitted.”
Documents from today’s meeting: Presentation of municipal staff | Developer presentation | Introducing Planner Sue Nelson | Proposed order
Additionally, she said, early in the process, PAC had to explain why the zoning change would benefit the city. He did, and now, at this point, it’s up to the commission to make the case for refusing the coming change, not the other way around.
“I haven’t heard any evidence that it should be commercially zoned,” she said.
But the commissioners had questions, following questions raised by residents, including a general consensus that traffic data and calculations provided by engineers do not calculate a scenario, or build on the site at all, or significantly reduce the density in the proposed complex.
Commissioners Philip Walker and Bill Read questioned the project’s two four-story buildings and its overall density.
Commissioner Stephanie Madden said it was “unfair” for state law to prevent local governments from refusing proposed development based on current road conditions and thanked area residents for providing the commission the “substantial and competent evidence” it needs to at least delay the project.
Using those objections, Madden said she wouldn’t approve the project without better coordination with Polk County and Polk County Public Schools, calling on the city to “have some responsibility in mitigating” the impacts. on Lake Miriam Drive to its terminus at Lakeland Highlands Boulevard.
Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said the commission was legally required to “work within the bounds of the law” and advised residents to “look at who we elect and send to Tallahassee.”
Commissioner Mike Musick said that while the proposal meets all statutory criteria and is technically in line with the city’s overall plan, ‘he questioned whether it was ‘the most responsible development that can happen. on the site and called on the commission to “table this” for further study.
“We need to see something that I can look at that the people I represent and they can give me a boost,” he said.
Musick has applied to continue the public hearing to allow the applicant to work with city staff to modify 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 “would be ideal for this property” and that he preferred multifamily “over retail,” but said enough “evidence” had been presented to send the proposal back for changes.
“We’re not in a place where we can see that density has a sense of compatibility,” he said. “I would really like to see another iteration. I’m just concerned that it’s too big for that setting. It’s going to be something. (This package) I guarantee it won’t sit empty for long.