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    Support sought on beachfront building rules

    Beach officials hope to keep construction controls in the hands of local government.

    By AMY WIMMER

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 3, 2001


    Clearwater supports the small beach municipalities that are trying to forge a compromise with the state Department of Environmental Protection over a new set of beach building restrictions. So are several chambers of commerce in Pinellas County.

    But as the deadline looms for establishing a new Coastal Construction Control Line, the beaches are trying to make sure Pinellas County is supportive, too.

    Beach officials negotiating a unique agreement with DEP officials in Tallahassee say they fear some county staff members have sent an opposing message to the DEP.

    "We need to work with the county," said J.J. Beyrouti, the mayor of Redington Shores appointed by the Barrier Islands Governmental Council, known as the Big-C, to negotiate with the DEP. "There may be some misunderstanding."

    After months of arguing between the DEP and a Big-C-appointed technical committee, the Big-C earlier this year took the reins of the negotiations and adopted a gentler approach. While the technical committee had challenged DEP's science and even insulted its employees, Beyrouti and his negotiating team tried to urge the DEP to keep beach construction controls in the hands of local government.

    The city of Clearwater liked this approach, and the City Commission passed a resolution endorsing the Big-C's efforts. Also behind it are the county's three chambers of commerce, Beyrouti said.

    The only ally missing is the county itself, and Beyrouti said DEP officials hinted to him that Pinellas County staffers did not support the Big-C's plan.

    "We're here to work together," Beyrouti told County Commissioner John Morroni at a Big-C meeting Wednesday morning. "Tell that staff of yours that we're here to work together."

    Morroni suggested the Big-C act quickly to get the County Commission's support for the plan.

    "It's not staff who sets the policy in this county. It's the elected officials," Morroni said. "I'm with you guys on this."

    Time is running out. The DEP originally planned to enact its new Coastal Construction Control Line in early 2000, but after a series of delays, the DEP now insists that it must take effect Oct. 1, along with the state's new Florida Building Code.

    "This has the potential to really damage the property rights of our residents," said state Rep. John Carassas, R-Belleair. "We think we have the DEP at the point where they're willing to concede."

    To meet that deadline, the DEP will hold a public hearing on the new regulations on Aug. 14. The Big-C must meet with county commissioners much earlier than that to request their support because the commission does not maintain its regular schedule during the summer, when many commissioners go on vacation.

    "We don't have that much time," Beyrouti said.

    The Coastal Construction Control Line is a line established in the late 1970s that currently runs along the beach side of nearly every property from Clearwater to St. Pete Beach. The DEP has established revised lines in every coastal county except Pinellas, and now hopes to move Pinellas County's line several feet inland.

    In many municipalities along the barrier islands, the line would cut down Gulf Boulevard, forcing all new construction to its west side through a state permitting process.

    The compromise offered by the Big-C calls for keeping the control line at its current location and instead reinstituting a county building regulation called "Chapter 39." This regulation was in place for more than 20 years until December 1999, when the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board repealed it.

    In March the licensing board, after realizing the ramifications of abandoning Chapter 39, reinstituted the rule, which separates the barrier islands into three zones and designates construction requirements on the beaches. In order for the DEP to accept Chapter 39 instead of a new control line, the agency wants to retool the regulation and make it tougher.

    Critics of the Big-C's negotiations with the state, particularly members of the technical committee who fought DEP on the issue, fear the Big-C is simply giving the state what it wants.

    The Big-C has offered to force property owners to build their homes at a higher elevation than Chapter 39 originally called for, but the DEP wants the Big-C to increase that elevation by another 2 feet. That brings the total elevation, including requirements already enforced by federal law, to the same amount outlined by the revised control line that DEP proposed more than a year ago.

    In addition, Chapter 39 affects a larger area than the revised control line would have, the critics point out.

    But maintaining local control of beach building is important enough to make sacrifices, Beyrouti said.

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