ST. PETE BEACH — How to preserve the historic character of Pass-a-Grille has long been a controversial topic, and the issue is about to heat up once again.
The crux of matter is the growing presence of massive new homes towering over the cottages and bungalows built beginning in the 1920s.
Officials are concerned that as the economy and housing market improve, construction of new homes in Pass-a-Grille will increase.
As a result, the city's Historic Preservation Board is poised to begin creating design guidelines to protect the quaint atmosphere of the city's southernmost neighborhood.
The board is concerned that the city is continually losing historic structures to new homes that are flat-roofed boxes three stories high.
"There is quality design down there, but there are some anomalies that are pretty scary," said board chairman Martin Lott.
"For those structures we can't save, we don't want to impact property rights, but we do want to create opportunities for compatible structures in mass and scale," says City Commissioner Melinda Pletcher, who lives in and represents Pass-a-Grille.
"It would be really wonderful to get people talking about it again," says Amy Loughery, a Pass-a-Grille resident who lives in a historic-designated cottage. "If there were more incentives, people would keep the historic homes."
A major factor in the city's ongoing attempts to preserve the look and feel of Pass-a-Grille has been its continuing failure to impose design guidelines for new structures.
"This discussion has been going on for a decade, but nothing has ever come of it," said urban planner Chelsey Weldon.
Pass-a-Grille's overlay zoning district was originally created in 2003 mainly to ensure that new buildings will be compatible with the existing historic structures built before the creation of the city's zoning regulations.
The Historic Preservation Board reviews all requests for expansion or demolition of historic and eligible buildings within Pass-a-Grille's official historic district, including imposing delays on demolition, issuing variances to FEMA flood plain regulations, and authorizing abatement of local property taxes.
City Manager Mike Bonfield says creating design guidelines has been a "lightning rod" for controversy in the past.
"Ten years ago there were fairly complex guidelines proposed and there was a lot of push-back," Bonfield said. "Boards, staff and elected officials change, and we never got our wheels behind it."
The last attempt to develop guidelines was defeated in 2008 when the city commission refused Bonfield's request for $35,000 to hire a consultant.
Another factor he said may complicate efforts to regulate redevelopment in Pass-a-Grille is a huge jump in the cost of flood insurance slated to begin this fall.
"I have heard some rates will be going from $1,500 a year to $20,000 or more," Bonfield said.
Among the first to feel the rate hikes will be owners of businesses and nonresidential properties. Rates have already started up for owners of Pass-a-Grille houses that are their secondary homes.
For Pass-a-Grille residents who live in their homes, rates will remain unchanged unless and until their properties are sold, they buy a new insurance policy or experience repeated flood losses.
Congress' goal, according to Bonfield, is to "phase out older homes not built to current codes."
He suggested this will give even more incentives to Pass-a-Grille property owners to demolish older structures and rebuild above the flood plain.
"Most of the houses in Pass-a-Grille will be affected," he said.
Out of more than 300 homes eligible for historic designation, only about 30 have currently applied to become officially historic structures.
"The present code is too complicated and residents don't really know what is available to them," Pletcher says.
"At least a dozen cottages have been torn down in the past six years and been replaced by McMansions," Pletcher says. "If we can have more compatible development, there is a greater chance the bungalows will still be here 10 years from now."
Elizabeth Hallock, an architect who has designed many new homes in Pass-a-Grille, stresses caution before creating design guidelines that could actually hamper historic-style designs.
"Development is inevitable, but there is a responsible way to marry the historic with the modern," she says.
Hallock said she hopes that the city will include architects and designers in the development of any new guidelines.
"Pass-a-Grille is so unique. It has a little fisherman village ambiance. People come here for that and then just tear down the cottages," says Nancy Wells, who lives in a 1940s-era cottage that has belonged to several generations of her family.
She is strongly in favor of strict design guidelines that have "real teeth."
"I would love to keep that look, and not have big houses that make it look like Palm Beach," she says.
"There has been difficulty in creating a consensus," said Weldon, the city's urban planner. "We will start from scratch, perhaps putting in incentives rather than disincentives."
She has scheduled two workshops so far — Sept. 19 and Oct. 24 — for the Historic Preservation Board to begin deciding the type and extent of any proposed guidelines.
The preservation panel also plans to involve the city's planning board and board of adjustment in the decision process, as well as hold public meetings to get input from Pass-a-Grille residents and business owners.