CLEARWATER — Industrial plants or high-rise condos are typically the target of not-in-my-backyard protests.
But a single-story assisted-living facility?
Watercrest Senior Living Group was planning an 88-bed senior living facility on East Lake Road to care for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
But the 3-acre site lies within the East Lake-Tarpon overlay district, which the county set up in 2012 to preserve the small-town, scenic character of the area.
Protective residents said the 44,000-square-foot facility would dwarf neighboring buildings and was precisely the kind of development the overlay was intended to prevent. They organized petitions, hired a land-use attorney and packed a Pinellas County Commission meeting Tuesday, arriving with hand-made protest signs with slogans like “Keep your promise. We vote”
Their campaign proved successful. Cmmissioners voted 5-2 to deny Watercrest’s application to rezone the parcel.
“There is substantial opposition,” said Commissioner Ken Welch. “The scope and changes are too much for that area.”
Mindful of the protests, Watercrest had substantially reduced the size of the center, which originally was planned as a three-story, 84-bed facility. The company was also willing to accept requirements that the center would be further set back from the road,
Supporters said the building would provide much-needed care for residents and enable family to place relatives close by so they could maintain contact.
“I’ve had two family members in assisted living,” said Clearwater resident Robert Whitlock. “Without it would have been a disaster. We had a real difficult time trying to find a facility.”
In denying the project, Commissioners overrode county planning staff who recommended it be approved with conditions that Watercrest provide additional landscaping on East Lake Road and that the property could not be used for any other purpose. The zoning change sought by Watercrest would also permit other kinds of institutions, including a minimum-security prison.
The emotive debate divided the surrounding community, with some neighborhoods and the Council of North County Neighborhoods saying the scaled-back project should be approved.
“We believe it fits,” said CNCN President Don Ewing.
But Cypress Run homeowners were not swayed and hired land-use attorney Michael Foley to put on their case during the hearing.
Foley said the center would mean more traffic in the community, with relatives and emergency vehicles making trips there all hours of the day, the opposite of the quiet that residents who pushed for the overlay district wanted.
Opponents celebrated the decision, saying they were relieved commissioners had listened to their concerns.
“We’re elated,” said John Heagney, a homeowner who has lived in Cypress Run for 25 years. “All of us were not sure which way the vote would go.”