Clearwater — For more than three hours, City Council members listened to the impassioned pleas of Sand Key residents who asked them not to assign a zoning designation to a tiny strip mall where they like to shop and enjoy a bite to eat.
But the City Council struggled with its decision, questioning whether denying the land owner's request would violate his property rights and set the city up for a lawsuit.
At the end of the meeting, they agreed with the 350 residents who packed City Hall, saying the zoning designation didn't fit the character of the community.
But on Friday, council members said they expect their decision will prompt a lawsuit.
"I wouldn't be shocked, but the city is often sued," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "But we'll defend ourselves and I feel like we're in a strong position."
Councilman George Cretekos said he was expecting a lawsuit no matter which side prevailed.
"We get sued every week. What's one more lawsuit?" added council member Paul Gibson.
Clearwater attorney Michael Foley, who represents the land owner, Clearwater-based real estate group D.A. Bennett Co., said: "At this point, every option is on the table. We're not ruling out any reasonable options and if we feel the rights were violated, then we'll pursue all viable means to seek redress."
At issue was a request to assign a zoning designation to the Shoppes on Sand Key, a popular, 3-acre shopping center about a half-mile south of the Clearwater Pass Bridge.
The land was previously zoned "business," but the designation expired last year. The land owner wanted the zoning changed to "tourist," which would allow a 100-foot-tall hotel. His attorney argued the property was surrounded by several 100-foot-tall hotels and 200-foot-tall condo towers.
The city's development code and future land use plan says "tourist" is the only allowable designation. But residents wanted it zoned "commercial," a designation similar to the now-defunct "business" designation.
For example, a commercial zoning would restrict the height of a hotel to 50 feet.
Council members struggled with the decision and agreed that, at the moment, "tourist" is the proper designation. But they ultimately sided with residents, agreeing that the tourist designation conflicted with the area's character. That means the land remains unzoned for now.
Attorneys for the Shoppes say the owner has no plans to redevelop the property. But rumors have flown for months that the mall would be razed to make way for a hotel.
Council members said their decision was partially based on a plan the city is crafting that would change the area's future land use plan and allow for commercial development. That probably won't be in place for another three months.
"We are not inhibiting any existing plans they have," Hibbard said, noting that no development plans have been submitted to the city.
The lone dissenting council member, attorney Carlen Petersen, said she was "uncomfortable with knowingly voting against something not supported by the current code."
City Manager Bill Horne, who does not vote, said the council's decision puts the city in "an unusual situation."
"According to our rules and process, there was absolutely no reason for us to deny the applicant," he said, adding that the application was "submitted properly, followed all the rules … and was in compliance with all the goals."
Paul Raymond, who also represents D.A. Bennett Co., said Friday he would know more early next week about whether to pursue legal action.
"The city violated its own statues and every council member admitted it," Raymond said. "Right now we're not sure what we'll do about it."
Meanwhile, Sand Key residents said they hoped the city won't be sued. They said they want to meet with city leaders and the land owner to work on a plan to please all sides.
Mike Donila can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.