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Guiding growth major mandate for electees

Indian Rocks Beach voters clearly said they want leadership there by defeating a mixed-use development.

Published March 19, 2006

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH - Newly elected officials here face a vexing issue: How to "guide" redevelopment in a community increasingly resistant to changes that most concede are largely inevitable.

In Indian Rocks Beach, more than 60 percent of voters cast a resounding "no" to a proposed mixed-use development on Gulf Boulevard that would have combined upscale condominiums with a Publix grocery store.

Up and down the beaches, older small motels, strip stores and beach cottages are disappearing, to be replaced by much more massive duplexes, condominiums and condo-hotels.

Partly a result of federal flood rules and partly because of escalating property values, these new buildings are viewed by many residents as too massive, too tall, and changing the very essence of their communities.

As one of the top two votegetters in the commission race, Jose Coppen wants to spend the next two years as city commissioner putting new rules and regulations in place that will both control and guide growth in a direction that meets the needs of both residents and developers.

Coppen brings a special perspective to his new job, most recently serving as chairman of the city's Planning and Zoning Board, and previously serving on the Board of Adjustment.

He wants the city to be more "lenient" with homeowners who ask for variances to rebuild their homes on small, substandard lots. "We should be giving homeowners the breaks instead of developers who only want to build bigger units," Coppen says.

Coppen says a mixed-use development ordinance would allow projects less massive than the proposed Publix that would "enhance the appearance" and economic viability of Gulf Boulevard with pedestrian-friendly businesses and residences.

He also plans to push for creation of a designated redevelopment area that would provide tax breaks and loans for existing businesses to economically redevelop or refurbish their properties and remain in the city instead of selling out to developers.

Several businesses are now in the process of selling their properties to Pinellas County, which wants to build a large beach access parking lot on the consolidated site on Gulf Boulevard between 23rd and 24th avenues.

The proposal is not particularly popular among officials or residents who see it as yet another example of the decline in the city's business community.

Newly elected Mayor Bill Ockunzzi says the proposed county parking lot is not a sure thing, since the present zoning requires commission approval of a special exception for parking as a sole use.

Ockunzzi says the next six months will be driven by a state-required update of the city's comprehensive plan, which governs zoning and development regulations. Among the decisions the commission will face is how small lots can be redeveloped by existing property owners, defining mixed-use development and creating a workable planned-unit development process.

Other issues Ockunzzi says will come before the commission in the coming year include building a new library, guiding redevelopment of key parcels in the city such as a city-owned park and solid waste facility in the Narrows, and putting utilities underground along Gulf Boulevard.

Voter rejection of a straw poll referendum that asked if residents would be willing to pay for putting utilities underground within neighborhoods puts closure to that idea, Ockunzzi says.

Ed Piniero, also a planning board member, stumped strongly for property rights and lower taxes. Voters responded by electing him to a one-year term on the commission he earlier served on as commissioner, vice mayor and mayor.

Piniero says he campaigned on "protecting the little guy." His victory was, he says, a recognition of the years he has devoted to town affairs and a vindication of his fight against how the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District is financed and operated.

As for the changing character of the town, Piniero says soaring property values and restrictive city codes have discouraged redevelopment of small lots. Like Coppen, he favors easing city rules for small property owners.

He is in favor of mixed-use developments but says it won't happen unless the city is willing to accept either larger building footprints or taller structures.

"I hope there will be a solidifying of resistance to any overdevelopment in the future," says R.B. Johnson, who was re-elected to his fourth term. "We are tired of being pushed around by developers who feel they can build above and beyond what the city allows."

Johnson says present zoning codes need to be tweaked to prevent existing commercial property from being converted to condominiums. Present commercial zoning allows conversion to residential use as a special exception. Mixed-use redevelopment is fine, he says, as long as it retains a commercial component.

"This vote (on the Publix project) will resound out into the future. For years to come, developers won't try to come in here and do something on that scale," Johnson says.

One other issue may be more difficult to solve: the Indian Rocks Beach Commission's reputation for frequent and lengthy meetings.

Newly appointed City Manager Al Grieshaber Jr. is working on the frequency issue, but limiting discussion among strongly opinionated commissioners may not have an easy resolution.

Past animosity between Piniero and Coppen won't help matters either. Last fall, Piniero filed a written complaint against Coppen, accusing him of violating the Sunshine Law and misuse of his position as chairman of the Planning and Zoning Board.

Coppen says Piniero "tried to derail my candidacy" but he is willing to let bygones be bygones and work together for the good of the city.

Piniero insists he has always conducted himself in a professional manner and says he never made his complaints against Coppen a campaign issue.

"But what people don't understand is we can get mad at each other but at the end of the day can give each other a hug," Ockunzzi says, adding he fully expects future commission meetings will sometimes become heated. "We need to focus on quality decisions, not the differences of opinion, not the shouting and screaming along the way."

[Last modified March 19, 2006, 01:07:22]

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