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State may relax its control of beaches

A deal would put state control of development for Pinellas' coastal communities in the hands of the county.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001

Pinellas County could become the only coastal county in Florida not governed by tightened state regulations that restrict building on the beaches.

A first-of-its-kind compromise between the state Department of Environmental Protection and Pinellas County's beach communities could leave control of beach development in the hands of the county.

"The more we proceed and go forward, we'll find out if it's real," said J.J. Beyrouti, the mayor of Redington Shores, who met with DEP officials in Tallahassee last week. "We don't want to raise anyone's expectations."

The deal would make obsolete the DEP's plans to draw Pinellas a new Coastal Construction Control Line, a demarcation that would force nearly all property owners west of Gulf Boulevard to apply for costly and time-consuming state permits when remodeling or rebuilding. The DEP has been working on the Pinellas line, the last to be introduced statewide, since 1997, and developers have built dozens of new gulf-front buildings in recent months to beat the new regulations.

The compromise involves resurrecting a local building rule called "Chapter 39," in place for more than 20 years until December 1999, when the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board repealed it. The board gutted the law at the request of Mike Knotek, the community services director in St. Pete Beach, who called the regulation unnecessary.

The licensing board just last month reinstituted the rule, which separates the barrier islands into three zones and designates construction requirements on the beaches. But if DEP is to allow Chapter 39 to take the place of a new control line, the state agency might want Pinellas County to further retool it.

"We'll just have to wait and see," said Gene Chalecki, the program administrator for the DEP's Office of Beaches and Coastal Systems. "The provisions in 39 are a good starting point."

And some beach officials are concerned that the licensing board again might change Chapter 39 at some point in the future, a move they believe would jeopardize any deal the county could work out with the state.

"Tell the PCCLB to keep their d-- hands off of it," said Bob DiNicola, mayor of Indian Rocks Beach.

For more than a year the Barrier Islands Governmental Council (Big-C), a group of elected officials from the beaches, has fought the state Department of Environmental Protection in combat-like fashion, attacking the agency's science and insulting its engineers in an effort to keep tougher state regulations out of Pinellas.

Just weeks ago the group changed its tack, opting instead to appoint negotiators from among its ranks. Redington Shores' Beyrouti and Indian Rocks Beach City Manager Tom Brobeil met with DEP officials in Tallahassee last week, and representatives from both sides of the issue used the same word to describe the negotiations: "positive."

"They certainly are being better received. I'm very happy with the fact that the Big-C is taking this present tack," Chalecki said Tuesday. "I think we've got some big hurdles ahead of us, and this is new territory. We're all very interested, so it'll be an exciting few months."

Beyrouti stressed that the Big-C is not turning its back on the contentions of the Technical Advisory Committee, which was appointed by the Big-C to research and fight the proposed CCCL. The committee, for example, filed a complaint against the DEP for not following state law for sealing engineering documents.

The Big-C still stands by the committee's stance on that issue, as well as several others.

"We're all together. We're not here kind of splintering ranks into good guys, bad guys," Beyrouti told members of the committee at a Big-C meeting Monday morning. "You were laying the groundwork."

But the Big-C also has questioned whether the committee's chairman, former Belleair Shore Mayor Bob Clayton, took the group's mission too far by calling DEP officials "liars" and their work "sloppy."

His attitude toward DEP dominated a four-page letter he wrote a month ago to Al Devereaux, director of the DEP's Office of Beaches and Coastal Systems.

"You have been cutting corners on your methodology document for 17 years, and it finally blew up in your face," Clayton wrote. "Don't blame me for that. You were the ones cutting corners."

Some beach mayors on the Big-C wanted to formally apologize to the DEP for Clayton's behavior, but the group declined to issue an apology, opting instead to approach DEP with some new faces.

Beach officials will meet again with DEP April 17, when they will present the local plan for administering building regulations. Chalecki said state statute allows a local government to work out the type of arrangement the Pinellas beach officials are working on, but no other county has ever expressed interest.

Beach officials believe the local rule will be well-received here because people already have lived with the rule for more than 20 years. In fact, some people never knew it was repealed.

For now, both the DEP and local officials are pleased that after more than a year of haggling over where the control line will be placed, a new option might be on the table.

"You can tell there is definitely a different direction," Beyrouti said.

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