eye on Pinellas County: Sembler personally lobbies Republican commissioners and wins another rezoning request

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Sembler personally lobbies Republican commissioners and wins another rezoning request

Dateline Clearwater, Fl 12-06-05 Pinellas Commissioners voted 4 - 3 to rezone 4900 Park St. in Seminole from industrial to commercial even though their own staff recommended against it. Last week Ambassador Mel Sembler, AO personally called and spoke to three Republican commissioners (Seel, Latvala, and Stewart) about his proposal which would mean millions for him. On Monday Mel's son Brent, who is Charlie Crist's campaign manager for governor, called Republican Commissioners Morroni and Duncan, but the two say they did not speak to him. The two Democrat commissioners (Harris and Welch) say they were not contacted.

Sembler brought in a team of experts capable of beating the Indianapolis Colts. There was Florida's top-gun economist Dr. Hank Fishkind of Fishkind and Johnson to debunk the county's concerns of dwindling industrial-use property. Bill Oliver of Tindale-Oliver & Associates assuaged the commissioners' concerns over increased traffic. [Tindale-Oliver is the county's own transportation consultants.] Sembler Company CEO Craig Sher was there to report that the old man himself would have been there had not he been in Washington, "on more important business, presumably."

But some speculate that Sembler avoids announced public appearances these days because he is frequently protested by groups such as the Uhurus who call him a racist; St. Pete for Peace who call him a right-wing elitist; the anti-Straight crowd who say he is unrepentant for his involvement in organized child abuse; and a growing number of citizens disgruntled with Sembler business plans who feel he is not a good neighbor.

The hearing to decide on the rezoning of property in Seminole was held at the county courthouse in Clearwater. Heading up Sembler's show was local, blue-blood attorney Tim Johnson whose daddy had once been named Mr. Clearwater and whose uncle had once been named Mr. Seminole! Mr. Johnson crowed that though he is known for saying much in few words he asked for more time on this particularly important matter. But one of the commissioners opined that all matters that come before the commission are important. [Sembler frequently uses Johnson's law firm. He used Tim Johnson in the The Great Cooper's Point Land Scam.]

With such fire power boring down on them, the issue for the county's own technical staff seemed to be in doubt until Mike Meidel, the county's economic development director, took the floor. Mr. Meidel eloquently, and simply, told the assembled commissioners that the county has a plan; that in that plan there is a huge effort to attract industry to the area; that the type of industry he is talking about is not factories with ugly smoke stacks, but rather medical, engineering and computer technologies buildings that look from the outside like attractive, big boxes. Industries that do not need a major highway, airport or rails to ship out big boxes of goods. It comes down to this, Mr. Meidel stated, getting more unskilled, low-paid workers in the retail business of which there is already an abundance OR getting a thousand, highly paid, skilled workers working in an attractive box. The later, he claimed, would generate more revenue for the county. The latter, he claimed, is becomming a diminishing commoditiy in the county.

Johnson and team argued that the property had gone vacant for a long, long time; that industrially zoned property was not selling; that insurance companies do not want to insure a property rated as a high flood area. Mr. Meidel suggested that perhaps Essilor, the property's owner (also being represented by Tim Johnson) had not been too effective in trying to sell its property. He noted that the county uses CoStar when trying to attract industrial buyers and that the Costar listing for the property at hand shows a picture of the former building on the property. Mr. Meidel pointed out that the building has been razed, but Essilor has not bothered to upgrade the ad. [The ad simply states, "4900 Park St N - Essilor, St. Petersburg, FL 33709-2228 USA. This property is an industrial building with 160,000 SF of rentable building area located in St. Petersburg in the South Pinellas Industrial submarket of Pinellas county."]

When Tim Johnson got a chance to rebut, he told the commissioners that Essilor uses LoopNet to list its American properties for sale. [I got an account with LoopNet at 1:41 PM EST, just after the commissioners voted, and did a search for the property, selecting every category, and found 12 properties in Seminole--but Essilor's was not among them.]

Frankly, we are confused about all the big fuss over the property being located in a high flood potential area. Consequently (it was stated over and over again) no one will insure it for industrial use. If the property is not insurable for industrial use, why would anyone insure it for commercial use? Why didn't one of the commissioners ask Craig Sher why Sembler is willing to build on such a risky location? Is Sembler going to inform the retailers who will lease his stores off Park Street that before they put hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of inventory in those stores, the area is an at- risk area? If Sembler is not going to tell them, should some informed, concerned citizen's group do it?

We are not hydrologists. We know nothing about flood plains. Perhaps there are economic or hydrological reasons why the matter is of no concern, or at least of lesser concern, to non-industrial businessmen. Unfortunately, we were not represented at the meeting--this time--to ask questions. From our map it looks like part of the property is on the water. Could that later be developed as high-priced, waterfront property for condos? Does Bill Young have a plan to build a flood retaining wall? If we are right in presumng that Sembler should have similar concerns as an industrialist, then why didn't Dr. Fishkind jump up and point out this anomaly. After all, was he representing the interest of the Sembler Company that hired him--or the interest of the citizens of Pinellas County?

We watched the entire proceeding on the Internet and thought that the county's team of Brian Smith (CPA staff), Mike Crawford (PPC staff) and Mike Meidel had proved their case for the county to deny Sembler's request. Robert Stewart made a motion to deny the request which was seconded by Ken Welch. But in the the end the commissioners decided against their own staff and voted for Sembler 4 - 3.

On Nov. 16 the Pinellas Planning Council voted 4 - 3, also against its own staff's recommendation, to side with Sembler in the Essilor matter. But Sembler is getting worse at this game. In 1988 Sembler tried to get a piece of property near Tyronne Village in St. Petersburg rezoned from industrial to commercial to build another shopping center. But the local citizens signed a petition against it; The Times noted that there was already 4 - 5 shopping centers in the area; and the planning staff for St. Pete advised against it citing increased traffic usage on streets already overused. So Sembler hired attorney Roy G. Harrell, Jr., immediate past president of the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce (who was friends with city Councilman Ron Mason) to lobby his case before the city's elected officials--just as he had hired Tim Johnson to lobby his case before the Pinellas commissioners in The Coopers Point matter. Those councilmen voted 9 - 0 for Sembler to build a shopping center that no one wanted! [See Sembler's long history of getting his way with elected officials even though their own staff's disagree with him.]

How they voted:

John Morroni (R) Chair.......no
Kenneth T. Welch (D) VC....no
Susan Latvala (R).................yes
Calvin D. Harris (D)..............yes
Robert B. Stewart (R)...........no
Ronnie E. Duncan (R)............yes
Karen Williams Seel (R)........yes

Email the commissioners: click individually above or email them all.

Related stories:

  • SPT: "Sembler family is flexing its political muscles in city" link
  • Special report by theStraights: Sembler's history of convincing elected officials link
  • Special report by theStraights: Sembler contributions to local elected officials link
  • Sembler Company CEO Craig Sher doesn't think $500 contributions can influence politicians. link indy vers
  • The Republican Party and their lobbyists help normalize cults in Pinellas County, Fl. link
  • Our article announcing that there would be a hearing on the matter on Dec. 6 link
  • SPT: Power broker calls; land use plan changes on Dec 7. link
  • Seminole Beacon 12-14-05
  • Commissioners' agenda for meeting on Dec. 6, 2005 link


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