TREASURE ISLAND — A proposed $15 million redevelopment on the south side of John's Pass has Sunshine Beach residents fearful that their quiet neighborhood will become a mecca for Caddy's-style beachgoers.
The proposed project on the east side of Gulf Boulevard includes:
• Complete renovation of Gators Cafe and Saloon.
• Demolition of a number of older buildings to create a 450-space parking lot.
• New walkways and docks along John's Pass.
• A boat sales office and updated marina and docks.
• An amusement arcade and a $500,000 wave machine in a converted 22,000-square-foot fish-processing warehouse.
Residents don't seem to have a problem with the 8-acre tourist project, but they are absolutely opposed to an upscale restaurant, bar and cabana proposed for the 1-acre beachfront parcel across the street.
The proposed Rock House Grille and Cabanas would be just off Sunshine Lane at the mouth of John's Pass on the Gulf of Mexico.
Its nearest neighbor is the multistory Nordvind time-share hotel.
Just to the south are beach homes, some dating to the 1950s. Residents fear the proposed resort on the west side of the road will destroy their quiet beach life.
"It will be another Caddy's, I don't care what you say. I don't think a bar should be the front door of the city," said Roland Kissinger, who says he lives "within eyesight" of the proposed resort.
The property's zoning would allow a 53-unit hotel, but a restaurant or bar is a conditional use that requires a special exception from the city's Planning and Zoning Board.
Residents want the board to reject the resort proposal.
Project architect Jack Bodziak is hoping to get the Rock House resort project approved.
Both sides pleaded their cases before the board last week and will come back Thursday to try again.
Bodziak represents Rice Family Holdings, the property owner, and an unidentified doctor and his family, that are forming a joint venture to develop the 9 acres on both sides of the road at the north end of the city.
"We would have to be blind to think we would not be compared to Caddy's," said Bodziak, who is a former owner of the controversial Sunset Beach restaurant and bar.
"This is not a Caddy's. We are going for a family-oriented resort," Bodziak said.
The beachfront property has several vacant multifamily residential buildings and is used primarily for overflow parking from Gators.
As proposed, the Rock House would include a restaurant, a bar, a wading pool and deck, a children's spray-ground zero-depth pool, and 17 10-foot by 10-foot cabanas where food and drinks would be served to guests.
Bodziak said the liquor license would not allow patrons to take alcohol off-site.
Parking requirements for the Rock House became an issue when City Attorney Maura Kiefer surprised board members and City Planner Lynn Rosetti with a new interpretation of the city's codes.
Kiefer said all the business' "gross usable indoor and outdoor area" would require much more parking than was submitted in the site plan.
Bodziak quickly said some of the 450 spaces planned near Gators could be designated for the Rock House.
"This is the first step into making this a first-class resort facility," Bodziak said.
If the project is approved and permits are secured, he said construction would begin immediately on the Rock House and the Gators redevelopment.
At some point, the property owners plan to add a major resort hotel.
Board member Joe Roberts said he was "very impressed" with the project, but asked for stronger guarantees that some of the 450 parking spaces on the east side of Gulf Boulevard would be available for overflow visitors to the beachfront resort.
"Your plans look beautiful, but I can't imagine that this place is not going to match Caddy's crowd," board member Kevin Johnson said, adding that without a formal traffic study, he remained "nervous" about the project.
"This is going to be a beautiful entry to the island. It is a beautiful concept," said board member Kathy McCreary.
In a recent citywide visioning survey, 56 percent of the 1,038 respondents favored an upscale resort development in the city. An even greater number — 59 percent — want more restaurants, while 69 percent want more businesses that would lower property taxes.
But Susan Keller, a former planning board member who lives on Sunshine Lane 300 yards from the proposed Rock House Grille, adamantly opposes the project.
"The zoning there would allow people to build and still make a living without making the rest of us so uncomfortable," Keller said.
Another resident presented a petition signed by 63 of her neighbors, opposing the project.
Hugh Ruckdeschel, a former city commissioner and frequent speaker at commission and board meetings, had a different view.
"You are looking at the first visioning of Treasure Island starting at John's Pass," Ruckdeschel said. "Don't vote it down just because you have bad feelings about Caddy's."
Nearly four hours into the meeting and with many more residents wanting to speak, the planning board decided to meet again at 2 p.m. Thursday to hear additional resident comments before making its decision.