CLEARWATER — Way back in 1925, Florida gave the local government a swath of land in Clearwater Bay to build a causeway to Clearwater Beach. The deal said this land must be forever used for public purposes like parks and recreation — or it would be returned to the state.
Now, 84 years later, Clearwater officials and beach residents are debating whether that reverter clause should be removed, and what it might mean for the future of Clearwater's Municipal Marina, which sits on this land.
The city wants to get rid of the requirement so it can someday redevelop its marina, possibly adding more parking and shops.
Some beach activists are skeptical of the city government and fear it will lure a developer to put a big hotel there.
Both sides say they want to preserve public access to the waterfront. But caught in the middle is state Rep. Jim Frishe, whose district includes Clearwater Beach.
The city is asking Frishe to help pass a law during the upcoming legislative session eliminating the reverter clause.
Meanwhile, the homeowners associations of Clearwater Beach, Island Estates and Sand Key are asking him not to.
Frishe will hold a public hearing beginning at 6 p.m. Monday at Clearwater's City Hall to hear what constituents have to say.
"It's a hot topic, and I'm probably going to end up getting beat up by both sides," said Frishe, R-St. Petersburg. He said he's been working with the opposing sides to try to find a compromise.
"The city isn't going to get everything it wants. We have to protect the public's access to the waterfront," Frishe said. "But they probably do need to redesign that marina out there."
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The marina's docks are home to Clearwater Beach's commercial and recreational fishing fleet, and no one is talking about changing that.
The city also says it would never try to sell the publicly owned marina.
However, it might explore getting into a public-private partnership with a developer to expand or upgrade the marina's interior, which currently houses a post office, a barber shop and a couple of restaurants.
"We want to clear up what we can do and can't do with the marina property," City Manager Bill Horne said.
Developer David Mack, who had a hand in building the Sandpearl Resort and the Belle Harbor condominium complex, has approached Clearwater about building a hotel at the marina. But city officials say they haven't even begun deciding what to do with the property.
"I don't know if we necessarily feel the need for a hotel," Horne said, instead talking about a more vibrant mix of retail shops. "We want to hear developers' ideas about how they might redevelop the property based on what our needs are."
Some beach activists, including Anne Garris, don't want to see any significant changes to the marina. They don't trust the city to preserve its character and its openness.
"This is the last piece of bayfront on all of Clearwater Beach that's just open and free for the public to wander around. You can just sit and watch the boats and the birds," Garris said. "It's the last real come-and-enjoy-it place we have on our beach without having to pay a fortune to do it."
City Attorney Pam Akin says redeveloping the publicly owned marina would require changes to its zoning, which would require a voter referendum under Clearwater law.
Garris believes the legislation the city is pushing would allow the city to lease or license the property without a referendum. But Akin thinks any significant changes to the marina still would require a public vote.
Horne and City Council members insist that Clearwater will maintain public access because the marina is an attraction for tourists and locals alike.
"No matter what, the public is going to want to park, eat and rent fishing boats," Horne said. "But the marina needs an upgrade."
The homeowners associations of Clearwater Beach, Island Estates and Sand Key want to put a halt to all this. They have met with Frishe, asking him to kill the bill.
"Let's just leave the marina the way it is for a while until the city is a little more clear about where it wants to take it," said Ron Delp, president of the Clearwater Beach Association.
John Doran, a City Council member and longtime Clearwater Beach resident, notes that over the years there have been discussions about a convention center, hotel or shopping center at the marina — all of which would require a referendum.
He says he has an open mind about what should go there.
"Some people believe that all we're doing is opening the door to mischief" by seeking to eliminate the reverter clause, Doran said. But he thinks it's necessary to clear up legal ambiguity about the marina property.
"I don't think any of us have any preconceived notions about the best way to redevelop the marina. At some point, somebody's going to want to do that, whether it's this council or in two years or 20 years," Doran said.
"My view is we should redevelop in a way that increases its use and the availability to the public. It's public property. Let's make people want to go there."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.