Polk County Commissioners voted 3-2 late Tuesday in support of a plan by Seefried Industrial Properties to add 1.5 million square feet of distribution warehouse space on a U.S. 27 site currently slated to be a regional shopping center.
This was the first of two public hearings and votes by the BOCC, and it follows a vote Oct. 4 by the Planning Commission to overrule staff objections and approve the project.
After nearly three hours of testimony, the commission was split on whether to transmit the proposed Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPA) to the state's Department of Economic Opportunity for review. Commissioners George Lindsey and John Hall wanted to deny the application outright, so as not to give Seefried any "false hope" that the board would approve the request at the final adoption hearing on Dec. 19.
Commissioner Todd Dantzler said he would vote to transmit the application to DEO -- but only to get comments and feedback from state planners. "I think you've still got a lot of work to do before you get my vote for adoption," he said.
The site in question is the Four Corners Town Center at the corner of U.S. 27 and Ronald Reagan Parkway. It's already an approved Development of Regional Impact with entitlements for 1 million square feet of retail-commercial space and a movie theater, and is part of a subdistrict within the county, known as the Ronald Reagan Select Area Plan (SAP), that specifically prohibits development of warehouse distribution space on the east side of U.S. 27.
"(Our) line in the sand was 27," Lindsey said. "The east side was more sacrosanct. It was going to be hotels, and retail, and multifamily and residential. That was our representation."
The 114-acre parcel has been owned by heirs of grocery store magnate Joe Albertson since the 1970s. They originally sought the restrictive Four Corners Town Center DRI in the early 2000s when the property was under contract to a mall developer.
David Albertson told commissioners he has pursued retail development for more than a decade. "Retail doesn't work here," he said. "We've made every effort. We recognize the emotion. We recognize the rights of the property owners. We also have property rights."
Commission Chairwoman Melony Bell agreed. She said Albertson and Seefried had done the necessary due diligence for the property, and they should be allowed to develop it for something other than retail.
Hall countered that it's not the commissioners' role to guarantee profits for land speculators. "We shouldn't be in the position of picking winners and losers in investments," he said.
Seefried is the same company that's building a 2.3 million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Lake Nona. Paul Seefried, vice president of development, told commissioners the distribution center would be less intense on surrounding property owners than the regional shopping center envisioned for the site.
But dozens of homeowners and commercial property owners spoke against the project. Risa Kay, who owns a 14-acre parcel at the I-4 interchange, said the truck traffic from distribution warehouses has made it virtually impossible to bring hotels, restaurants and retail to the site.
"They love our location but they say it's too many trucks," she said. "Enough with the warehouses. They can find another interchange. They don't have to be on 27."
The U.S. 27 corridor has emerged as one of the busiest distribution hubs in Florida, with more than 5.2 million square feet of warehouse space clustered on the west side of the corridor.
That includes the Walmart twin distributions centers that opened in 2016 and the highly successful Park 27 business park -- across the street from the Albertson site -- which is adding another 600,000 square feet of flex industrial space now.