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Plan to pave grassy stretch riles neighbors

Residents print buttons that say ''Keep 23rd Avenue Green'' after a neighbor proposes a driveway on right of way.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 18, 2002

ST. PETE BEACH -- A new beachfront property owner in Pass-a-Grille wants to build his private driveway on a public right of way neighbors use to access the beach.

The property owner is Paul Skipper, the local developer hired without a public bidding process to build the new City Hall.

Some of Skipper's new neighbors fear that city officials, who took St. Pete Beach further into debt last year to pay Skipper for the $4-million City Hall, will favor the developer.

"I think he's got gall to ask for this," said one neighbor, Kathy Luehring.

Skipper plans to build two homes -- one to sell, one to live in -- on three beachfront lots on Sunset Way between 22nd and 23rd avenues. Last week, crews tore down the original building on those lots: a 1938 historic brick estate, built by a former governor of Nebraska.

Skipper purchased the property, which includes 135 feet of beachfront, for $2.35-million in a sale completed last month. He could not be reached for comment.

The controversy, which has caused a stir in Skipper's new neighborhood and led residents to print buttons that say "Keep 23rd Avenue Green," centers on a 50-foot right of way between Skipper's property and his northside neighbor.

The right of way was platted on city maps as a "street," but it was never paved. The grassy area has a sidewalk through its middle that leads from Sunset Way to a dune walkover and public beach access.

Over the years, neighbors have come to think of the city-owned area as a public green space, where they walk their dogs and enjoy the view of the beach -- a view encumbered only by sea oats and sand dunes.

"He's using his influence with the city to open back up a road that hasn't been used as a road in forever," neighbor Judy Cherry said.

Skipper has taken two requests to city officials. One requires a variance, approved by the Development Review Board and City Commission; the other requires a legal opinion from the city attorney and approval by the commission:

-- First, Skipper wants permission to build his home 10 feet closer to the right of way, known as the "23rd Avenue street end," than allowed by city ordinance.

Without the variance, Skipper could build a home that is only 25 feet wide; with the variance, the house can be 35 feet wide.

Jerry Speece, senior city planner in St. Pete Beach, said city staff likely will recommend approval of that variance.

Speece explained that while city code calls for a 20-foot setback from the "23rd Avenue street end," such rules were written when 1960s-era developments like Vina Del Mar popularized the idea of larger setbacks for corner lots.

But in Pass-a-Grille, an older neighborhood, those rules don't always make sense, Speece said. He said several of Skipper's neighbors have received their own variances for the 20-foot setback.

While the lot Skipper wants to build his own home on is only 50 feet wide, the three lots he owns total about 135 feet -- more than enough to avoid a variance if he would replat the three lots as two. Replatting might even provide enough space for his driveway, avoiding a fight with the neighbors over the right of way.

"We have no way to request them to replat," Speece said. "That would be something they would have to do voluntarily."

The city's Development Review Board will consider the variance at a meeting Sept. 25. The City Commission also can choose to review the board's decision.

-- Skipper's other request is more controversial.

He wants to construct a driveway, likely about 15 feet wide, from Sunset Way to a garage entrance on the north side of his new home. The driveway would be built on city right of way, on the north side of the sidewalk residents use to reach the beach access.

City Attorney Jim Devito, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, is researching Skipper's request, Speece said.

The request has infuriated neighbors, who say previous attempts to use the right of way -- even to beautify it for the benefit of the neighborhood -- were turned down.

When neighbors on the north side of the right of way built a new home recently, they offered to install reclaimed water lines and maintain the green space for the city. The city declined, Parks Superintendent Tami Nicholas said, because the arrangement might raise questions about who owned the infrastructure.

At some point in the future, the neighboring property owners could potentially try to deny public access to the right of way, Nicholas feared, based on the fact that they maintained the lot.

Skipper became a more controversial figure in St. Pete Beach over the past three years as the City Commission wrangled over whether to accept his offer of free property in exchange for the exclusive right to build a new City Hall.

After months of debate and complaints from residents who questioned the ethics and legality of the deal, Skipper withdrew his offer of free land. Ultimately, the city paid a price for the property that was less than an independent estimate and gave Skipper the exclusive contract to build.

Cherry, the neighbor, said she hopes the Skippers can be welcomed as neighbors, but plans to watch for any "preferential treatment" by the city.

"I'd be happy to have Paul Skipper move into the neighborhood," Cherry said. "We have a great neighborhood, and we would welcome him and his wife, but I guess it's just a matter of this green space has always been here, as far as anybody here can remember."

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