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Motel owner challenges beach condo project

It's a classic battle between new and old: A mom-and-pop motel fights to preserve its place in the sun. Next door, a new condominium is ready to rise.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


INDIAN SHORES -- Wes Westphal sits on the deck behind his old beachfront motel, just outside the window of the bedroom he used as a teenager.

"This is not a mom-and-pop venture for me. It's a dream," said Westphal, who spent much of his childhood here at the Sun 'n' Fun, a motel owned by his family ever since his grandparents bought it for $26,000 in 1963. "You like to think it's what you want to do in retirement."

Soon, he fears, this beachfront back yard, including the section where he hopes to install a pool, will be nothing but shade. A 71-foot condominium will likely tower next door, casting a shadow over the six-unit motel and, Westphal says, taking the "sun" out of Sun 'n' Fun.

Right now the property next door, once a row of beach houses, is a pile of dirt, left behind when the city made the condo's local developer, Bob Lyons, stop construction. The city realized it had approved the $13-million condominium without informing its neighbors of the plan, as required by law. So now Lyons -- who has already paid at least $125,000 in plans and building permits alone -- must again get city permission to build the condos.

The debate over the new Palazzo Del Mare condominiums reverberates in pockets up and down Gulf Boulevard. On beaches from St. Pete Beach to Indian Rocks, city officials are juggling the quaintness of old-school beach houses and motels with the glitzy allure of luxury condominiums that bring more property taxes to the cities.

Developers say their projects will help the beaches by increasing property values and bringing people onto the islands who have money to spend. Others say the condos have sucked the personality off the gulf beaches, turning Gulf Boulevard into a wall of concrete.

Meanwhile, Indian Shores officials insist the Palazzo isn't controversial because Westphal is the only person complaining.

Westphal, a developer himself in Colorado, said he does not expect to defeat the project. He knows the condominium will be built next door to him, but he does not believe the developer has met the requirements to build an extra story.

Evelyn Page, an Indian Shores real estate agent with Beach and Bay Realty who has contracts on six of the anticipated 12 units at the Palazzo, says condominium projects have upgraded Indian Shores.

"I think the Palazzo will be such a huge bonanza to this town that it will be unbelievable this town could even have this kind of building," Page said.

Indian Shores is allowing the Palazzo to be built 10 feet higher than is normally allowed because the developer agreed to back the building farther off the road and meet other requirements that allow developers to build higher in Indian Shores.

But Westphal questions whether the builder has met the standards to qualify for an additional floor. Only once before, with the Verandas project in Indian Shores, has a developer been allowed to build this high since the city implemented a height cap in the early 1990s.

"I don't agree with adding another floor to this building," Westphal said. "The developer hasn't earned it."

Page is baffled about why Westphal objects to the project. Even Westphal admits that his little motel, despite its exorbitant resale value on the beachfront, is not meeting its potential. He says his motel usually loses a few thousand dollars each year, but he hopes to fix it up when he retires.

"He's got a very old building over there, and I don't know what his problem is because all that's going to happen is his property is going to be worth more money," Page said. "Sometimes people don't understand that when you buy a piece of property and follow the codes, you have certain property rights."

In this case, Westphal says his rights are the ones being overlooked.

Westphal said he was visiting his property when he noticed the signs next door advertising the soon-to-be-built Palazzo. He questioned why he, a next-door neighbor, had never been contacted about the project.

City officials realized that instead of informing neighboring property owners like Westphal, they notified two of the three homes that already had been sold to the developer.

"We basically notified the developer," said Malcolm Green, Indian Shores' building official.

The city conferred with its attorney and then directed Lyons to stop work on the project. The project has made its way through the permitting process again and is expected to receive final approval Tuesday night at a City Council meeting.

Westphal questions whether his input will actually be considered by the council, considering that it was the city's mistake that is delaying the developer's project.

"They really are in between a rock and a hard place. They've approved a $13-million building, and then told the developer to go back to "go,' " Westphal said.

But Indian Shores Mayor Don Taber said the developer is not pressuring the town to approve the project.

"The developer has been pretty at ease about it," Taber said. "I've been quite surprised. I know if I had that kind of money just sitting there, I wouldn't be that at ease about it."

Westphal also disagrees with how the city measures how high the building can be. While Indian Shores has always allowed five living stories above a parking garage, or six stories above a garage if the developer qualifies for extra height, Westphal said the city measures those stories incorrectly.

The Narrows, where Westphal's motel is, is 10 feet above sea level, Westphal argues, so the building needs to be measure differently than other condominiums in Indian Shores.

Taber says the codes need to be rewritten so they won't be misconstrued in the future; Westphal points to that as proof that the town isn't following its own rules, just rewriting them to fit this project.

The developer has met many of the requirements to build higher. His building is set back from Gulf Boulevard about twice as far as required, and 30 percent of the site is devoted to open area, which is 50 percent more than required.

But Westphal argues the condo doesn't fit in with the surrounding neighborhood.

"They just pop it in here and expect us to react to them instead of them reacting to us," Westphal said.

Chuck Coward, the city manager in Treasure Island, which is now considering an incentive plan that would allow hoteliers to build higher buildings, said devising specific standards for when builders can build higher will be difficult. The city will work on specific standards after its board determine whether they want to allow such flexibility.

"How much do you allow for creativity?" Coward said. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I don't know that you're ever going to have total certainty."

Meeting Tuesday

The Indian Shores Town Council will consider the Palazzo Del Mare condominium project at a special council meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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