TREASURE ISLAND — The City Commission is tiptoeing back into what could be political hot water — intensive redevelopment of beachfront properties.
On Tuesday, a majority of commissioners informally approved taking the first step in creating special planning areas and related zoning regulations.
They decided to pick a consulting firm at the May 5 regular commission meeting to help city staff prepare future development plans prior to a citywide vote.
The owners of the vacant Buccaneer Motel property on Gulf Boulevard say they are willing to pay the cost of the consultant to create a development plan.
"We are hopeful that at the end of the day what does go to referendum would be considered reasonable and would stand a chance to be passed," Al Cohen, spokesman for the Buccaneer owners, said Tuesday.
In 2002, voters overwhelmingly passed a charter change that requires voter approval for any changes to land development regulations. That vote followed a bitter battle over a city proposal to allow new hotels to rise as tall as 10 stories over parking.
That proposal was blocked by a lawsuit residents filed.
The kind of development permitted by present land development regulations are "unsustainable," Cohen said.
He wants the city to take advantage of a new county ordinance that allows local municipalities to increase density and building height for new hotels and motels in an effort to encourage development of transient lodging for tourists.
Among the options allowed under the county ordinance are creation of a special area development plan that could apply to an entire section of beach, such as the central beach area from 104th to 119th Avenues, the John's Pass area, or the Blind Pass commercial area.
Such a plan could be restricted to a single property, such as the Buccaneer site. The city might also create a special "overlay" plan that would apply to a particular zoning district, such as the existing RFH 50 zoning for high-density resort facilities.
That zoning district now allows up to 50 transient units per acre. Under the county ordinance, that density could be increased to 75 units per acre or even to 125 units for tracts larger than 3 acres.
The only way to increase the number of units on a site is to allow either or both an increase in the building density through reduced setbacks or an increase in building height.
"We need to work together or … nothing is going to happen," Cohen said.
Commissioner Alan Bildz predicted that would be the result.
"To me, this is an exercise in futility because any plan must go to voters and they are not going to vote for this," Bildz said.
Commissioner Phil Collins stressed the city should not spend any money for the consulting firm.
"I have had a lot of concern from residents opposed to city spending any money for a special area plan. I want to make sure this is not the case," Collins said.
City Manager Reid Silverboard confirmed that no money would be spent on planning unless the costs were paid by the Buccaneer developers.
He reported that 14 planning firms responded to a formal request for proposals the city issued last month. City staff narrowed that list to six and will recommend one at the commission's next meeting.
"It is my understanding the commission has an interest in increasing density of transient lodging units, not residential units, as a way of spurring redevelopment of our central beach area," Silverboard stressed. "If the commission has no interest in looking at increasing the densities to accommodate this type of request, then that is what you need to tell us."
The commission agreed to "go forward" with selecting a firm, but wants a special workshop session to discuss redevelopment options before any further steps are taken.
No date for that workshop was set.