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A too-tall roof in Palm Harbor fails to get retroactive approval

PALM HARBOR — Pinellas County development review officials can't recall another case like it.

A building built nearly 10 feet too high.

A few inches? Maybe.

But "something of that magnitude, I'm sure we would remember," said Paul Cassel, the county's development review services director.

And the building in question doesn't belong to a private developer, but to another government agency — one that wanted retroactive approval.

It didn't get it.

Pinellas County's Board of Adjustment voted 4-1 Thursday to refuse to okay the height of a nearly complete structure being built by Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation, which is independent from the county and is overseen by the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency. The project — a roof to shelter a playing area for roller hockey and basketball in the Sunderman recreation complex — is expected to cost $461,000 in public funds, much of it already spent.

The vote puts the future of the shelter in doubt. County officials said Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation has three choices:

Tear the building down, lower the roof to 25 feet or appeal the Board of Adjustment's ruling in Pinellas-Pasco circuit court.

"They ought to do something pretty quickly," said Cassel, who will give them two or three weeks. After that, "it becomes a (code) enforcement issue because they are out of compliance with the board's original approval."

So what's next?

"Don't know," Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation director Rick Burton said after the vote. "We have to decide."

The vote, which came after an hourlong public hearing, is the latest twist in a story that began in February. That's when Pinellas County officials asked Palm Harbor Recreation to stop building the open-sided shelter at Sunderman park.

They said the project — paid for partly with county grants — was taller than the Board of Adjustment allowed when it approved the project in September. At that hearing, plus an earlier one in June, a contractor for Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation told the board that the roof would be 25 feet high, tops. Burton has said the contractor, Phil Phillips, was "nervous" at those meetings.

Neighbors opposed the roof even at 25 feet tall, so they were incensed when they saw it top 34 feet. Some liken the structure to an airplane hangar. Others say misinformation given to board members at previous hearings was no accident.

"Rick Burton stood in my living room and told me it was going to be 25 feet," said Martin Del Monte, who lives across the street from the unfinished shelter.

Building plans called for a roof more than 34 feet tall, but the Board of Adjustment did not see detailed plans at last year's hearings. The main issue then was how far the building would be from the road. But because a building height of 25 feet was discussed at public hearings, it became a "de facto" condition of approval, county officials say.

Last month, county development review officials told Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation that it could remove the building, lower the roof to 25 feet or seek approval for its present height, 34 feet 3 inches, from the Board of Adjustment.

Palm Harbor recreation officials first said they didn't want to do any of the three, but later agreed to another hearing Thursday before the Board of Adjustment in an attempt to get retroactive approval for the project.

Burton told board members that officials "feel terrible" about what happened but did not knowingly mislead anyone. His concern had always been the interior height of the building, he said, the height needed to play basketball.

"We apologized for the statement" that the roof would be no more than 25 feet tall, Burton told board members.

Burton said he would be willing to create a new entrance to the facility to divert traffic away from the neighborhood and to plant taller landscaping, including 11 additional 22-foot-tall sabal palm trees. Lowering the roof to 25 feet would mean that the shelter could not be used to play basketball. It would also, in effect, double the cost of the project, he said.

Neighbors were not persuaded.

Del Monte described it as "an industrial structure, and it's in a residential neighborhood."

North Pinellas resident Steve Tucker urged that the board "hold any agency of the county to the same standard that they hold private citizens to."

Board members questioned Burton sharply.

"I've been in business 50 years, and if I make a mistake, I eat it," said Board of Adjustment member Joe Mangus. "So I'm going to vote against it."

Told of the board's decision later, the chairman of the board that oversees Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation was flummoxed.

"Oh, boy. Oh my gosh. Now what?" said John Myers, chairman of the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency, an independent local taxing authority that runs Palm Harbor's parks and library.

Myers said this is a big project, and one designed to serve youth sports leagues.

"Do they realize there's an awful lot of taxpayers' money that's involved here?" he asked. "That's not chump change. … I'm just appalled that they don't realize that it's serving hundreds of kids."

Times staff writer Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

A too-tall roof in Palm Harbor fails to get retroactive approval 04/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 5:27pm]
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