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New PAC seeks vote on beach land use rules

Fearing a Fort Lauderdale in their own back yard, the St. Pete Beach group wants to force a referendum.

Published May 11, 2005

Residents of St. Pete Beach love their quaint community, but some of them fear that others will love it to death.

"Every one of these little mom-and-pop places is going to be gone," said Bill Horne, 65, who worries that the overdevelopment that happened to the Fort Lauderdale of his youth will happen to the St. Pete Beach of his retirement.

He says he can't go home because of congestion, but he sees the same development trends in St. Pete Beach - and a City Commission that is encouraging them. "It's just going to be jammed up from one end to the other, just like Miami and Fort Lauderdale."

Horne has joined other beach residents in a new political action committee, St. Pete Beach Citizens for Responsible Growth, which is now collecting signatures to force a referendum on land development regulations that could increase development in the city.

Political action committee chairman Terry Gannon, who was St. Pete Beach mayor from 1990-92, says the city is destined to be a gridlocked concrete canyon of high-rises that erase any sense of a beach community.

"This is the biggest thing that's ever happened to this community," Gannon said of the regulations that could increase population density in some areas fivefold and allow 20-story buildings on the waterfront. "If this is done wrong, you can't undo it."

Gannon and Horne paint a grim picture that suggests the City Commission is ramming through new laws that will benefit only landowners and developers, not residents.

Suggestions that such development will save the city money and reduce taxes are preposterous, they say. But when city officials defend the proposed regulations, they echo some of the PAC's arguments.

"I'm a resident too. I'm concerned about the quality of life and the aesthetics," Mayor Ward Friszolowski said. "If we thought the city would stay as it is without the regulations, we'd be okay, but it won't."

Friszolowski said St. Pete Beach is becoming a target for what the PAC fears, and that the regulations are a way to fend that off.

He said that increasing numbers of condo developments will house part-time residents who cannot support the year-round shops and restaurants that give the community its character.

He said that only tourism can save the community because of the greater numbers of visitors and their greater spending. He said PAC supporters misunderstand and misconstrue the proposed regulations, which are still in draft form anyway.

"(Gannon) has not attended a single meeting in the three years this process has been going on," Friszolowski said. "We'd love to have him as part of the process, but it's frustrating when people don't want to engage."

Gannon said the city's information to date has lacked specifics for evaluation. He said that only now, as the regulations near a vote, are the details coming out and that his group has to act fast to prevent disaster.

The regulations stem from a process that dates back at least three years, said Planning Director Karl Holley, who inherited the process when he joined the city last July.

He said community visioning pointed to a desire to have a residential and tourist city, but with a better appearance.

A city consultant used that direction to develop a program to encourage hotels instead of condos. The main thrust would allow up to 20-story hotels, but not condos, and only in a specific area of the beach that already has tall buildings.

The proposed regulations would also tie a hotel's height to its footprint, so a taller hotel for more people would take up less space on the ground and not inhibit beach views and access.

"There's a whole host of safeguards to keep a developer from blowing into town with a pocket full of cash and putting up a bunch of crap," Holley said.

The regulations, which cannot be passed for at least a month and are still being adjusted, would still not allow a developer to build without coming before the City Commission and getting separate public approval on a specific development.

Approval would also hinge on easements for landscaping and burying utility lines.

Holley said the regulations flow from an economic analysis that is full of assumptions. The main one: that a hotel and a condo would generate similar property tax revenues, but the hotel would create sales and tourist taxes as well as invigorate other businesses.

Friszolowski said increasingly popular condo-hotels are not as useful because their room size and amenities don't force guests into the community the way a small, kitchenless hotel room does.

Nonetheless, Gannon's PAC is pushing for a referendum as soon as possible.

Noting that the city has had plenty of other matters decided by referendum - including its name change from St. Petersburg Beach - Gannon said a proposed change this large deserves voter input.

"We're not saying the city has to look any particular way," he said, "just that the people should be able to vote on it."

[Last modified May 11, 2005, 00:46:18]

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