CLEARWATER — In the end — after four hours, five intermissions, 40 or so speakers, about 50 rounds of thunderous applause, a touch of rudeness (some say passion), and one loud expletive — the City Council reached a unanimous decision regarding beach density Friday morning.
But the agreement, reached about 12:30 a.m., left many residents struggling to figure out just what council members had approved.
More than 300 of them packed three floors of City Hall, most arguing that their communities would be jeopardized if council members agreed to let builders add more rooms to their hotel developments.
They were joined by a score of business owners, their attorneys and members of the local chamber of commerce who argued more hotels meant more jobs, more tourism and bigger bucks for the city's struggling coffers.
After their initial confusion over the council's decision, the residents were briefed by attorneys and figured they had at least secured some victory, although they wanted more.
"They made it very unattractive for hotels to build (in some areas), but in our opinion they didn't find the balance we were hoping for," said JoEllen Farnham, a Sand Key resident who helped spearhead a grass roots movement to energize residents into opposing bigger hotels.
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Last year, the county approved a plan that cities could use to let builders add 50 to 150 percent more hotel rooms per acre, depending on the site's size.
Their argument — and one most Clearwater leaders share — is that the plan makes it more economical for builders to develop mid-range, mid-priced hotels rather than condos. And it replaces the hotel rooms lost during the condo boom.
Further, they say, more hotel rooms bring more tourists, which means more money.
The City Council, bombarded by phone calls, letters and sometimes insulting e-mails from concerned and upset Sand Key and Island Estates residents, opted to reduce the number of rooms allowed by the county by 10 percent. And the members decided not to apply the rules to any land zoned for commercial use, which effectively eliminates the chances a developer would build a hotel on such property.
This point is crucial to the barrier island residents. They have a few parcels of land zoned or proposed to be zoned commercial — like the Shoppes of Sand Key— that residents feared would be turned into hotels. That won't happen now.
The council did, however, sign off on a plan that would let land zoned "tourist" receive higher hotel room density.
Instead of 50 rooms per acre, developers can now build 70 units on parcels of less than an acre; 90 units an acre on 1- to 3-acre parcels and 110 units an acre on parcels larger than 3 acres.
(Clearwater Beach is the only area exempt because it has an even higher density allowance.)
The council's decision won't affect Island Estates, because the area doesn't have land zoned tourist. But it could mean big changes on Sand Key, residents say, because they have two large hotels — the Sheraton and the Marriott, which could now double, even triple, in size.
"It's very fortunate that the city values tourism enough to grant density on our land and others," said Russ Kimball, the general manager of the Sheraton Sand Key. "The good part about this is, at some point, the owners of the hotels have the choice to either expand, or rebuild if it's obsolete, or sell to a condominium developer. Today, there's a choice."
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It was an emotional meeting. Residents wore orange "no hotel" stickers, mumbled under their breath, snickered at comments they didn't like and munched on crackers to stay awake and feed rumbling bellies.
One resident joked it was so crowded he thought the pope was visiting.
Another, co-organizer Mary Reinhardt, dropped off a foot-and-a-half-tall stack of petitions against the proposal that included 2,400 names.
Residents of the two barrier islands said they didn't mind the council's plan as long as it applied to the rest of the city and not them.
In fact, they said it wouldn't make sense to apply it to the islands.
Alan Zimmet even took the council members' reason for approving the plan and threw it back at them. He said no hotel rooms were lost on Sand Key during the condo craze and the two there now — the Sheraton and the Marriott — are not mid-price hotels, nor would they ever be.
"Therefore, the whole argument doesn't work," said Zimmet, a Clearwater attorney representing most of the audience.
Others argued the plan would drastically change their quality of life. They said when people looked for a place to live, they didn't expect the city to change the zoning rules so bigger hotels could interfere with their lifestyle.
Sand Key resident Jim Strenski said the plan would create noise and trash, open the door to crime, increase traffic and complicate hurricane evacuation procedures.
Ironically, council member John Doran pointed out, crime is dramatically lower on Sand Key, which has hotels, than on Island Estates, which has none. Sand Key residents said that's because they live in gated communities and the mostly senior citizen population doesn't break the law.
But the general manager of the Sheraton said the hotel needed the extra rooms to lure tourists and hold down costs to "keep it a level playing field" with other cities, such as Fort Lauderdale.
Clearwater attorney Ed Armstrong, speaking for the Marriott, noted that any new work would need a development agreement, something the City Council would have to endorse.
"You control this," he said, a touch of emotion in his voice.
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At times, the residents had to be calmed.
Mayor Frank Hibbard must have banged the gavel 10 times, trying to quiet folks, adding "I know you can control yourself, you're adults."
Even council member Carlen Petersen, normally reserved, took some of the crowd to task.
"Tourism is critically important to the community … and tonight I've heard tourists called 'criminals' and 'invaders' and, frankly, if I heard that I wouldn't want to come here, … and we welcome tourists," she said. "Our beaches are public. They don't belong to you, they don't belong to me. To try to segregate them is wrong."
She also pointed out that the Sand Key hotels "have been there long before you have been there and have done a lot for the community."
In the end, Vice Mayor George Cretekos, a Sand Key resident since 1976, made the recommendation to cut the county's proposal by 10 percent. He said the number was based on discussions he had with residents and city leaders beforehand.
The mayor added that just because developers are allowed a density doesn't mean "they'll get anything close to the maximum allowed." He said review boards have to take into account several issues, including height and setbacks, before signing off.
At the maximum level, the Sheraton could possibly add 732 rooms to its existing 390 and the Marriott could add 308 to its 220.
However, other council members said, any developer who asked for the maximum probably wouldn't get it.
Whether that really appeased the heated crowd still at City Hall in the early morning is debatable.
"It was a clear victory for Island Estates because they won't see any hotels," Reinhardt said. "But whether 10 percent is enough, well, I wish it could be more, but we'll have to think about it."