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Beaches struggling over height rules

In Treasure Island, the debate is over a proposal meant to encourage hotels to build up, not out. But beach lovers are skeptical and upset.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002

TREASURE ISLAND -- Rhonda Anderson enjoys the ambience of Sunset Beach, her adopted neighborhood. She likes that she can walk from her house to a favorite hangout, Nick's SeaBreeze, for a beer at sunset or an omelet at breakfast.

"It's one of the few beaches left that is still not overdeveloped and still has a small-town ambience to it," said Anderson, who has lived here for two years. "We just think it's unique and different."

These days residents of eclectic Sunset Beach are looking warily at the string of bars at the entrance to their neighborhood. A city proposal designed to encourage new hotels to build up instead of out has infuriated residents who want to keep their out-of-the-way piece of beach just as it is.

City officials, on the other hand, are responding to neighbors citywide who have asked them to put the gulf back in Gulf Boulevard. Through a formula that would allow hoteliers to build as high as 100 feet but on a smaller footprint, city officials hope to remind Gulf Boulevard drivers that they are on the beach.

So far, the most vocal residents, most of them from Sunset Beach, are erring on the side of the status quo.

"Naturally I also want to see a view of the beach, so to me, neither option is perfect," said Anderson, who is helping collect petition signatures that would force the issue onto a voter referendum. "I guess if I had a preference ... I would prefer something shorter."

Treasure Island's dilemma is repeated up and down the Pinellas beaches, where residents in Indian Rocks Beach fight boxy -- some say ugly -- condominiums and business people in St. Pete Beach push for relaxed height restrictions along the city's Hotel Row. The trend is to knock down aging mom-and-pop hotels and replace them with a sure money-maker: condos with a view.

Last year, Treasure Island alone lost three such locally owned hotels. One became two single-family homes. One became a townhome development, one a condominium.

According to St. Petersburg-Clearwater Convention & Visitors Bureau statistics, while residential condo owners spend only 45-50 days in town each year, Pinellas hotels were 86 percent full in February, and their tourists spent an average of $89.33 per person each day they were here.

"They're going to attractions. They're renting cars. They're eating out," said Debbie Stambaugh, president and executive director of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. "Those are all resources that are tied to the sales tax."

Treasure Island's plan would apply to two zoning districts: commercial general, which includes the business strip at the entrance to Sunset Beach; and high-density resort facilities properties, located on the west side of Gulf Boulevard.

Encouraging hotels instead of condominiums is not the only goal in Treasure Island, where city officials plan to spend the next year or two revamping city codes that govern how properties are developed. In a series of community meetings held with civic associations and business and neighborhood groups since August, city officials absorbed complaints that Treasure Island has too much concrete.

"Every single meeting I went to," said City Planner Lynn Rosetti, "people wanted us to protect the views."

Now some residents say they don't want to sacrifice low-lying buildings just to be able to see the water behind them.

Take Beach Nutts Bar & Grill, the Sunset Beach bar that has been the subject of much speculation since talk began of allowing 100-foot hotels in commercial zoning districts. Some Sunset Beach residents have lobbied to exclude the commercial zones, including Beach Nutts and other bars along West Gulf Boulevard, and allowing the city's "height bonus" plan only in the areas geared for heavy hotel development -- namely the west side of Gulf Boulevard north of Sunset Beach.

Right now Beach Nutts could be replaced with a 17-unit, 55-foot-high condominium with walls on each side that run the length of the property. The new regulations would allow a developer to build a 100-foot-tall hotel, provided that they agreed to stringent setback and landscaping requirements that allowed pleasant views of the beach from the street.

Complicating the issue is the fact that Treasure Island later will be considering a planning tool called "density transfer," which would allow property owners to use density allowance from one property to benefit another, thus allowing even more units. Critics fear this plan would result in huge gulffront buildings on the west side of Gulf Boulevard with parking lots on the east side. Including density transfer, Beach Nutts could become a 43-unit hotel under the new rules.

The density increase requires state approval and will be considered later.

Ken Brown, who owns Beach Nutts and Nick's, said despite the rumors, he has no deal in the works for redeveloping his property.

"I don't have any concrete plans," Brown said. "Have I had any thoughts or dreams? Hey, who hasn't?"

Brown, who is also president of the Treasure Island Business Association, said he does believe his beach and others have to react to changing times. Tourism was beginning to falter in Pinellas before Sept. 11, which only made the situation worse.

"Tourism has definitely dwindled, and the dollars they spend while they're here have dwindled," he said. "There's not enough traffic to support the tourism. We need a couple new hotels, but I don't think any of us know where that's going to be."

Some residents are trying to force the city to take such changes in the rules to a voter referendum.

"I just don't want them to build huge monoliths," said Walt Herring, who is part of the petition drive.

This week city commissioners rebuffed pleas from residents who asked them to nip the plan in the bud before it went further in the process. Instead, the commission asked a citizens' committee to study the plan over the next two months.

If you're interested

The next public meeting about the plan will be an hourlong informational meeting in front of the Planning and Zoning Board that will begin at 1 p.m. June 20 at City Hall. The committee has not yet decided whether the public will be invited to speak at the brief meeting.

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