High-rises, high tempers
By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
TREASURE ISLAND -- What Chuck MacIntyre had to say wouldn't take long, so he left his pickup running while he ducked inside Topps Supermarket.
There he found Mayor Leon Atkinson, wearing a pink shirt embroidered with the city seal, conducting his weekly office hours from a card table at the town's only grocery store.
"I'm pretty disappointed in the disgusting thing you did," MacIntyre told the mayor, never stepping far enough inside the store to let the automated doors close behind him. "You're going to be voted out of office."
His comments needed no context for patrons at Topps. These days in Treasure Island, the checkout line is no escape from chatter about politics and 100-foot-tall hotels.
An initiative to lure new luxury hotels has degenerated into a bitter battle for the beach. A Nov. 5 referendum could give voters unprecedented power over future development. Last week the City Commission, fearing the referendum's approval could stall growth, rushed new rules into law that open the door for gulf-front high-rises.
"They tried to do an end run around the voters," said Heidi Horak, a resident who helped get the referendum on the ballot. "People don't like that at all."
Attorneys have filed dueling lawsuits. The city's biggest landholder is tooling around town with a trailer full of "vote no" signs hitched to his truck. Cliques of residents are convinced that builders are waiting in the wings, eager to pounce with permit applications as soon as the coast -- the Treasure Island coast -- is clear for redevelopment.
"People have been poisoned by propaganda," said Tim Ferguson, a Naples lawyer who represents several business people on the island. Financing for tourism ventures has dried up because of the lagging economy, he said, and no one's rushing to build in a county that hasn't seen a new beachfront hotel open in more than a decade.
"I honestly wish I could say there's somebody waiting to build a 10-story hotel right now," Ferguson said. "But it's not going to happen."
This is the story of coastal Florida, played out clumsily in a small-town venue. The Treasure Island residents wary of growth live mostly on man-made islands carved out of mangroves. Many of the business people own beachfront properties that have more than doubled in value in the past 10 years.
Politics and business are tightly intertwined. One of the city commissioners works for a Treasure Island businessman almost certain to benefit from new development rules. The mayor also owns property that could gain value under the new rules.
Gone are the days when the biggest debate in Treasure Island was whether dogs and beer should be allowed on the beach. (Dogs aren't; beer is.)
"It's really a shame to have all this hostility and not getting along," said Chuck MacIntyre's wife, Pam, who grew up on this beach. "It's so non-Treasure Island to me."
The city's history sounds like the rest of Florida's: a bit of capitalism, a bit of tourism, some publicity and a couple of fake pirates.
Beach historian Frank Hurley said the name came from a 1918 promotional stunt. An entrepreneur buried and then "discovered" a treasure chest in Blind Pass.
He made sure a couple of tourists saw him dig it up. The rumors spread.
Visitors are greeted today by the neon Thunderbird Beach Resort sign that has screamed a welcome since 1957. The mom-and-pop motels have names like Jolly Roger and the Buccaneer.
The beach has such a kitschy identity that niche tourists who seek out 1950s architecture and decor consider Treasure Island a favorite vacation spot.
That reputation has to change if the city wants to remain a tourist destination, advocates of new development rules said. George Makrauer, a former city commissioner, said the city can't attract deep-pocketed tourists when it offers only aging, $40-a-night motel rooms.
Such accommodations draw visitors who have few dollars to spend.
But beachfront economics here are working against tourism. Property is so expensive, and the rules for building on them so restrictive, that businesses are giving way to mansions and condominiums with multimillion-dollar views.
In 2001, three Treasure Island motels were torn down; two homes and two condominium projects replaced them. Projects now under way will replace two restaurants and two beach bars with condominiums and beachfront homes.
Late last year, city officials wrote new development rules to entice hoteliers. Developers would be allowed to build 10-story hotels over parking, as long as they followed stringent setback rules.
Residents cried foul.
Why were commissioners rushing the approval? Why wouldn't the city more clearly answer their questions? Why hadn't the city done more research to bolster the assertion that high-rise hotels are better than condos?
"The commission and city staff are running around saying the sky is falling, and the only way to hold it up is with 10-story buildings," said Jim Dobyns, president of Treasure Island Voters Watch. "They haven't even proven that the sky . . . is going to fall."
This summer, the situation on the beach got hot. Now it's just plain messy.
Business people met with leaders of the residents' group months ago, trying to strike a compromise. After residents turned in 2,000 petition signatures supporting a referendum that would give voters the power to approve future height and density increases, the days for compromise were over.
"After the petitions were tendered, it became very, very difficult to effect any kind of a deal," said Mike Daughtry, a petition drive leader known for wearing an eye patch that makes him resemble Treasure Island's trademark pirate. "How do we speak for all those other people? It's not right."
Because of a mistake in its wording, the referendum goes further than its authors had planned. If the referendum passes, more than half of Treasure Island's voters would have to approve future height and density increases. The turnout has never even been that high in a city election.
City commissioners decided to quickly liberalize the rules for building hotels on the beach before the Nov. 5 vote could take the power out of their hands.
The commission's decision complicates the referendum that was originally meant to limit development. The courts are likely to sort it out.
But as things stand now, approving the referendum would prevent city commissioners from allowing any building higher than 10 stories without voter approval. If the referendum is defeated, the new rules would still be in place, but city commissioners would have flexibility to change them.
Wednesday evening, a woman shopping at Topps paused at the mayor's table, trying to make sure she understood the referendum correctly.
"Do I vote yes if I'm against tall buildings?" she asked.
"If you vote no, future commissioners will be able to run the city," said Atkinson, giving the issue his own spin. "If you vote yes, commissioners won't be able to continue running the city."
The residents against tall buildings see it differently. They say a "yes" vote on the referendum will send a strong message to city commissioners: Support tall buildings at your political peril.
-- Times correspondent Kathy Saunders contributed to this story.
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