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Progress or destruction?


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Progress or destruction?

Will pending changes turn St. Pete Beach into "Sand Key on steroids" or just a hipper, more alive place? The community is divided late in the game.


Published March 20, 2005


ST. PETE BEACH - Change is never easy and when it involves your home, your business or your neighborhood, it can be downright scary for residents, business owners and politicians alike.

In this city of nearly 10,000, changes to the Community Redevelopment Plan - and by extension, the land development regulations - have consumed city staffers and commissioners for roughly two years.

The results? The plan suggests the city be divided into 11 "character districts," for which individual redevelopment patterns are established.

The most dramatic - and controversial - changes involve allowing 20-story buildings and additional residential density.

The proposed changes have developers lining up to bring their projects here and some residents fuming.

"We are trying to find a balance," said Mayor Ward Friszolowski. "There are no easy answers. We're facing a lot of hard decisions."

Despite what the city says are good-faith efforts to inform residents of the changes, some here still have questions.

Like how will 20-story buildings be possible without increasing density?

If a high-rise hotel goes in next door, how much will the city's infrastructure - sewer system, water, roads and electricity - be taxed by the extra burden? And how much will current residents feel the hit, both in their quality of life and their pockets?

For some, the buildings will be too high - or not high enough. Others complain that the rules are unfair to smaller hotel owners, that some single-family neighborhoods will be invaded by multifamily buildings, or that proposed mixed-use commercial/residential areas along Gulf Boulevard could create "canyons" of tall buildings.

"The south beaches are clearly getting screwed," said Robert Czyszczon of the Plaza Beach Resort.

Czyszczon objects to limiting smaller hotels to 50 units per acre while larger hotels to the north are allowed 80 units per acre.

"I am paying the same millage as the larger properties. It's complete discrimination and favoritism. There is no physical way we can redevelop with these numbers," he said.

"What concerns all of the homeowners is we don't think we're being told what's going on," said Jack Ohlhaber, president of the city's Council of Civic Association Presidents. "I know the city thinks they're right and have made honest attempts to educate the public, but (most) people are enjoying their retirement or working hard and just don't know. . . . The city is running away with the cart."

City officials say the public has had ample time to offer its opinions.

Now, in the 11th hour, some residents are mobilizing against it, claiming city commissioners and staff never made it clear how drastic the changes would be.

City leaders don't have all the answers, but most say the plan will leave the city in a better place. The plan has earned accolades from local hoteliers and county planning officials.

"To me, words like "pioneer' and "visionary,' they're exciting," Commissioner Deborah Martohue said after a February meeting. "Life is an evolution. A city is an evolution of life."

Commissioner Ed Ruttencutter has been the board's lone voice of dissent. He has taken issue not with what's in the plan, but the haste with which the city wants to implement the changes.

"Once you do it, there's no going back," he said Friday.

The original goal of this was to get the tourist and resort industry healthy again, he said. That has been pre-empted by "the developers who want to build more condos and taller condos."

"What they're proposing is not St. Pete Beach as we know it," he said. "It's an intense, very crowded type of community. ... It's going to be like Sand Key on steroids."


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