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Developers' Cash Can Be Sticky Gift
By ELLEN GEDALIUS, The Tampa Tribune

Published: June 23, 2007

TAMPA - People with knowledge of a police investigation into a land development deal say a developer promised $50,000 to a neighborhood association.

On its rezoning site plan, MetLife indicated it would donate $50,000 to the Carver City/Lincoln Gardens Civic and Homeowners Association for 'future neighborhood improvements to be identified by the association in cooperation with the city of Tampa.'

The city's attorneys objected to the note on the site plan, and it was removed several weeks ago.

Council members, attorneys and developers interviewed Friday who had knowledge of the $50,000 promise either did not know or would not say whether it was part of a Tampa Police Department investigation into complaints that developers are being asked for money in exchange for community support for their projects.

But they did use the example - along with several others - to point out that promises often are made during the rezoning process. Developers and neighborhood associations often strike deals, raising questions about when a promise goes too far.

'It's a very complicated area, and there's no bright line in the dirt to tell you where propriety stops and impropriety begins,' said lawyer John Fitzgibbons, a former federal prosecutor.

Police are looking at whether MetLife, which proposes a commercial, retail and residential development for its 32-acre site on Boy Scout Boulevard, was inappropriately asked for money. A MetLife spokesman has said the company is not under investigation. He would not say whether MetLife is the source of the complaints. Council members postponed a hearing on the project last week, on the advice of city attorneys.

The president of the Carver City/Lincoln Gardens association did not return calls for comment. Wilson Robertson, an officer with the association, would not comment.

'Situations Can Be Abused'

Developers regularly meet with neighborhood associations to tell them about their projects. Winning neighborhood support is critical because council members often hesitate to approve massive rezonings when neighbors are opposed.

Sal Territo, chief assistant city attorney, said that if a developer is paving over a park, it's probably OK for that developer to offer to build another park in the neighborhood. Neighborhood improvements that benefit a large group tend to be OK.

'It's when there's cash passing hands when people start to get concerned,' Territo said.

Fitzgibbons agreed. If the deal took place publicly and benefits a large group, that's OK. Secret cash payments are not.

Lawyer Truett Gardner, who represents several developers in town, said neighborhood groups used to focus their concerns on the sites themselves. Now, he said, the groups are less focused on design and more focused on securing money for nearby neighborhood improvements.

'There are situations that can be abused,' Gardner said.

Mitigation is completely appropriate, Councilman John Dingfelder said. To be done properly, developers should talk with the city and neighborhood groups about what is acceptable, but money should not exchange hands, he said.

'It shouldn't be cash to the neighborhood, to the individuals, to the neighborhood association,' Dingfelder said.

Previous Deals Have Involved Cash

A couple of years ago, the city council was asked to approve the lease of a small parcel of Marjorie Park to Tampa General Hospital so the hospital could build a parking garage. Council members agreed to the request in part because the hospital offered to provide $1 million for parks and recreations improvements on Davis Islands.

The deal was aired in public at city council and neighborhood association meetings. The money is being funneled through the city, not the neighborhood association.

Another deal that gained traction was a developer's promise of $25,000 to the city's transportation department to help offset the impact of a development in the Beach Park neighborhood.

Questions have been raised, however, about an agreement between the West Tampa Community Development Corp. and developer Ken Morin. The CDC is a private, nonprofit group focused on improving housing in West Tampa.

Under one part of the agreement, the developer offers the CDC $525,000 to put toward affordable housing projects. Under a second part, the developer offers an additional $225,000.

The second part was killed when Councilman Charlie Miranda raised questions about the arrangement. The agreement was between the CDC and the developer; the city was not involved.

'I don't need two groups to get together and come up with a plan to make a bad zoning good,' Miranda said.

The CDC said it had not been contacted by police.

Michael Randolph, the CDC's economic development director, said the money helps people in the area. He added that the organization never approached or pressured a developer to contribute.

Morin did not return calls for comment. His attorney, Bryan Sykes, also did not return calls, though he said at a hearing this month that 'this is not something the West Tampa CDC approached us on.'

City May Change Its Ethics Code

In a separate arrangement, developer Ed Turanchik and the CDC reached an agreement that gave the CDC $500 for every lot developed by Turanchik's InTown Homes.

Turanchik said this week that he was contacted by the police department as part of the investigation. In an interview Friday, he said neighborhood groups often try to seek promises, though he declined to elaborate.

'Where does a proper request end, an improper request start?' Turanchik said. 'I don't know. We're just trying to do a good project in West Tampa.

'It can be a very slippery slope,' Turanchik continued. 'If it's a quid pro quo, it's probably illegal.'

The city attorney's office this month provided a police investigator with contact information for the MetLife, Morin and Turanchik proposals.

Randy Baron, vice president of Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods, said that as a neighborhood leader, he wants to make sure impacts of developments are offset by help from developers. But the city should be involved from the beginning, he said.

At Miranda's urging, the city is contemplating changes to its ethics code that would forbid people from requesting money or services from anyone with a matter before the city in exchange for support. It would also require people appearing before the council to disclose whether they are benefiting from a developer.

Former County Commissioner Joe Chillura views neighborhoods asking for money as a serious problem.

'It's just as bad as trying to bribe an elected official for his vote,' Chillura said. 'It's just as bad and more sophisticated. It's a form of extortion; there's no question about it. I don't want Tampa to be the best city money could buy.'

Reporters Jose Patino Girona, Anthony McCartney and Mike Salinero contributed to this story. Reporter Ellen Gedalius can be reached at (813) 259-7679 or [email protected].
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