Small properties becoming big development problems
Density laws, property rights, investment potentials are on a collision course as St. Pete Beach tries to mollify all parties.
By PAUL SWIDER
Published December 18, 2005
ST PETE BEACH - Despite multimillion-dollar resort concepts and complicated constitutional issues, the thorniest part of St. Pete Beach's redevelopment plans may involve some small family motels near downtown.
"We're not saying we have the solution for every property owner on the island," Mayor Ward Friszolowski told a group of motel operators from the Upham district. "I'm not sure there's an answer here."
Friszolowski made the statement during a commission meeting Tuesday.
The Upham district is an area of older buildings near Upham Beach. The neighborhood is a mix of motels, homes, apartments and condos, most built decades ago and sometimes in odd configurations that predate comprehensive planning.
While land values all over the city have risen, Upham's existing buildings and zoning make it difficult for property owners to create the kind of big-dollar developments planned along Gulf Boulevard. City officials say they would like to see Upham's older buildings revamped, but it's hard to create an appropriate plan for that.
"There is no one answer that is going to make everyone happy," said City Manager Mike Bonfield.
The city's redevelopment plan originally increased Upham's motel density from 16 units per acre to 40, and changed its residential density from 10 to 24, making property owners very happy because their land increased dramatically in value.
But before that plan was approved the city had to meet Upham homeowners' desires as well and shift the plan to get state approval. Disappointed motel owners said many of them never were told about the change.
"For us, this is our life investment," said Leslie Hughes, who owns the Sun-Dial Motel. "Maybe we should have been at every meeting, but we didn't realize our property rights were being compromised."
The city's current proposal would allow no new motel development in Upham and 24 residential units per acre only on parcels of a full acre or more. Smaller parcels would be allowed fewer than a pro-rated share of the 24. For example, a half-acre parcel would be allowed fewer than 12 units.
For Hughes, who bought her one-third acre, 22-unit motel for $1.5-million two years ago, such zoning wouldn't even allow her to recoup her original investment, she said. Under the proposal, Hughes would be allowed to develop only three units, rather than eight, the prorated share she would prefer.
City officials say they have deprived no one of legal development rights, but are merely trying to make appropriate changes to meet public purposes, not maximize owners' investments.
"Quite often, when you cut a baby in half, it results in nothing but a dead baby," said Community Development Director Karl Holley of the compromises required to juggle growth management rules, public desires and meaningful development.
Holley said the area can be developed economically, but not in small chunks by many owners, as Hughes wants.
Other owners recognize that the city is in a bind, but they also say that unless the zoning allows for some economical development, owners will simply let their buildings slide.
"They were trying to fix it, and it would have worked if they had stuck to their guns," said Alan Ball, who bought the 11-unit Serendipity Motel five years ago for $495,000.
He recently added an adjacent home so his land is a full half acre, but the new purchase cost $330,000. He, like Hughes, says he can't redevelop unless he can get 12 units, a full pro-rated share of the 24-units-per-acre proposal.
"If they don't encourage us to redevelop, it's going to be a blighted area," Ball said.
But city officials say some buyers pay too much for property thinking redevelopment will push value higher.
"That's the real estate market's fault," said Commissioner Deborah Martohue. "You can't expect politicians to fix the real estate market. We can't write the profit check for everyone."
Commissioners have asked Holley to adjust the plan once again to try to meet public goals and appease landowners, but he said that may not be possible.
"If you're telling me to perform a miracle and reconcile these irreconcilable positions," he told them, "my answer is no, I don't understand your direction."