CLEARWATER — Clearwater's perception as a hard place to do business might be changing.
City Council members decided last week to advance a plan to streamline development for beach hotels.
A policy given initial approval would allow developers to provide a development agreement along with less detailed "conceptual" plans to the City Council early in the process.
The council would hold two public hearings and vote at the front end of a project, allocating units out of the city's hotel density pool.
After that, the city planning staff and the appointed Community Development Board would review and approve the more detailed plans for the project. The City Council would not see those plans unless major changes surfaced.
Mayor George Cretekos was the lone holdout at Wednesday's meeting, saying that he wasn't comfortable with giving up the power to "ratify" development plans at the end of the review process.
"I'm still not comfortable that we're not going to have the final say-so," Cretekos said before the 4-1 vote to move forward with changing the procedure.
Underlying the debate is a Clearwater Beach Hampton Inn project that was rejected by the council in February. The developer, Steve Page, said he spent $170,000 on plans only to have his project later scuttled by the council.
That project surfaced several times in the council's discussion Wednesday. City Attorney Pam Akin said hotel developers are looking for more certainty from the city before they sink money into expensive plans.
"For them, it's expense, timing and certainty," she said.
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson said he's satisfied with the new approach developed by the city's Business Task Force.
"They've given us everything we want," he said.
Gibson and council member Bill Jonson had joined Cretekos in voting against the Hampton Inn project.
Page was also pleased with the news of the changes.
"I like the sound of what I heard. It might work a little smoother, people won't spend as much money," said Page, who lives in Indian Shores.
Page said he's tweaked his Hampton Inn plans. He's reduced the height of the planned hotel and cut back the number of planned beds from 116 to 90 on a site between two other hotels on Clearwater Pass not far from the Sand Key Bridge.
The new rules won't go into effect immediately. First, the council must approve them in the form of an ordinance. Before the council can do that, the Community Development Board must review the proposed change. The council isn't likely to take the issue up again until July at the earliest, according to city planning director Michael Delk.
Longtime Clearwater Beach activist Anne Garris, 84, said she thought the council had "done a Band-Aid procedure when they need a major operation."
If elected officials take a step back from overseeing the process and give a greater role to planning staff and other unelected officials, she said, the beach will suffer.
"We will continue to have gross overdevelopment that in my opinion is detrimental to quality of life and tourism," she said Friday.
The debate over what to do about beach hotel development has lasted for months.
"I think there is a certain amount of fatigue on all sides in regards to this issue," Delk said. "Sometimes a 100 percent solution eludes us and I think that's the case here."
Although he opposes the changes, Cretekos said the new policy will help change Clearwater's reputation as a difficult place to make a deal.
Charlie Frago can be reached at (727) 445-4159 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.