TREASURE ISLAND — It’s a dilemma that’s harried Gulf Coast beach towns for decades.
City planners want to encourage new hotel construction, maybe even allow buildings to grow bigger and taller in some places, but they don’t want to open the door to a line of towering resorts such as those that loom over beaches in Miami or even nearby Clearwater.
Few cities take the issue of overdevelopment more seriously than Treasure Island, where a fierce debate is already brewing over a possible hotel project on the north end of town that hasn’t even filed any definitive plans yet.
The city commission is considering changes to the way zoning regulations are applied to this strip of land on the island’s northern edge, a prime spot for a large resort overlooking Johns Pass, developers have said.
Such a development would be the first major hotel construction here in more than 40 years.
Groups already have formed to oppose the hotel and any changes to zoning or building codes they say would benefit developers at the expense of longtime residents.
The same concerns that a decade ago led the city to require a referendum on changes to building heights or density appeared alive and well at a recent commission workshop.
“We are not in favor of increasing height or density. We don’t want it more populated. We don’t want it more crowded. The voters put these limits in for a reason,” said Kay Stimer, a resident of the Key Capri condominium along Johns Pass and part of an opposition group called Our Treasure Island.
“If you continue down this path, we will fight you every step of the way.”
The city commission cannot, in fact, grant a size increase for a new hotel along Johns Pass or anywhere on the island.
The commercially zoned property at the foot of Johns Pass Bridge, where the popular Gator’s Café & Saloon stands, is limited to a mere 22 tourist units per acre. The land’s owners could request for it to be rezoned for resort hotels, which would permit up to 50 units per acre under the current city code.
It would be up to voters to grant them permission to build something larger per a city charter rule established in the early 2000s to stave off a wave of big condo construction that radically altered the face of neighboring communities.
As the economy has rebounded in the past few years, planners in nearby cities such as Madeira Beach and Clearwater have sought to work out flexible development agreements, sometimes allowing additional rooms or building height in exchange for extra parking or environmentally friendly design features.
Treasure Island, too, is looking for ways to update its building code by creating a series of districts across town with varying rules for height, density and other design standards.
Last spring, voters approved an increase in density for residential buildings in and around downtown, but narrowly rejected a measure to boost the number of hotel rooms.
On the city’s agenda this year is a roughly 10-acre swath of land planners have dubbed the north end district. Rather than lay out a preset list of guidelines in this part of the city, planners have suggested letting developers draft proposals for the site that commissioners would subsequently review.
If part of a proposal required more rooms or height than currently allowed, the variance would be decided by voter referendum.
The rub for many residents and at least one commissioner is that plans for this north end district appear to be crafted with a specific developer in mind.
A subsidiary of Homeowner’s Choice Property & Casualty Insurance Co. bought up much of the property on the east side of Gulf Boulevard in 2012, including Gator’s and the marina, as well as a small sliver of land across the street on the Gulf of Mexico.
Representatives from its real estate arm, Greenleaf Capital, have attended numerous planning meetings since then and have shared ideas for the property with city staff.
One concept envisions two tall hotel buildings with 500 rooms, a new two-story restaurant at the Gator’s site and another 25 units across the street on the Gulf.
Although Greenleaf has met with the city on several occasions, the company’s assistant general counsel Brent Von Horn reiterated to the commission and a large audience of residents that they have no definite plans for the property right now.
“We were exploring the options of what possibly might be done with this very wonderful location,” Von Horn said of meetings with the city in an interview after the meeting.
While some city residents have recently voiced worries about a big hotel on the property, Von Horn points out that many residents in a survey taken a few years ago said they favored a major “world-class” resort on the island’s north side.
Several residents have objected that the city code only allows properties of five contiguous acres or more to be rezoned for resort construction, which makes the Greenleaf property the only one eligible in that area.
Commissioner Alan Bildz also wondered whether this approach might run afoul of state law.
A rule passed in the Florida Legislature last year prohibits cities from approving specific development projects by a voter referendum.
If developers requested a height increase for a specific project above the maximum of five stories above parking, a public vote would be required, which appears to make voters the decision makers for a particular development rather than elected officials, Bildz said at a recent commission workshop.
“I’m not going to say a challenge would not happen,” City Attorney Maura Kiefer replied.
Heidi Horak, a former chairperson of the city’s planning board, predicted the city would see lawsuits like those that continue to hamper new construction in St. Pete Beach, the next town to the south,
She emphasized the need for making broader updates to the city’s development rules.
“You are trying to bend over backward for these very well-meaning people and I think it’s going to bite you in the end,” said Horak, a real estate attorney, who spoke at the workshop.
“You’re not going to get what you really want and what they really want, which is a really good development, at the end of the day.”
A bitter dispute concerning St. Pete Beach’s master city plan, which allows larger hotel development on sections of the beach, has cost more than $1 million in legal fees and has scared off new construction for years.
While developers have shown interest in building along the main drag of Gulf Boulevard since the economy has improved, litigation that remains in appeal continues to keep new projects on hold, St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield said.
The attorney who filed the St. Pete Beach lawsuit, Ken Weiss, says it’s not the job of city commissioners to help developers like Greenleaf maximize profits.
“You knew the zoning when you bought it. Why did you think we would change just for you?” said Weiss, who has lived in Treasure Island for 20 years. “This is our home and we’re just protective of our home.”
That’s a sentiment shared by many Treasure Island residents and their elected officials.
Phil Collins was elected to the commission 12 years ago running in favor of giving voters a direct say over development.
“I can’t think of any support to speak of from residents in Treasure Island who want to see skyscrapers, 10- to 15-story buildings on our beaches, or anywhere else,” Collins said.
“They don’t want it to look like Clearwater, Miami or even Madeira Beach, and that’s the way I feel as well.”
For a town of 6,700 people that has high infrastructure costs, including a city-owned drawbridge, turning away new development could mean losing out on critical tax revenue.
The empty oceanfront lot at the end of 108th Avenue, where the Buccaneer Motel once stood, probably represents a loss of $100,000 to $150,000 a year in city revenue, Bildz said.
That only underscores the need for creating more flexible development rules, City Manager Reid Silverboard said.
“We have been told for years now that the city’s current regulations discourage redevelopment of property,” he said.
“We have a lot of older hotels and structures because the economics of redeveloping them to the current height and density just don’t make it work economically.”
Horak, the former planning board chair, says the direction of redevelopment should be determined by a clear set of zoning principles and incentives rather than being crafted around the needs of a particular developer.
“Planning is supposed to start with the community; it’s not supposed to be initiated and pursued by a developer,” she said.