CLEARWATER — This city has always been sensitive to accusations that it is difficult for businesses to deal with.
But last week, Clearwater's elected leaders raised some eyebrows by rejecting a proposal for a beachfront hotel that a developer had spent $170,000 creating in close consultation with Clearwater's own planning staff.
The city's professional staff said the 15-story Hampton Inn & Suites proposed for the south end of Clearwater Beach met all the city's requirements, but the City Council squashed it anyway in a 3-2 vote.
"It was exactly what the city said it wanted. It's a mid-priced hotel. It's a great flag," said the Hampton Inn's developer, Steve Page, who says he has been hearing reactions of disbelief from the development community. "I think everybody's a little bit shocked."
Housh Ghovaee, CEO of Northside Engineering, which worked on the hotel proposal, snapped a photo of his 6-foot-4-inch son standing next to the stack of plans he had to send to the city. The son and the plans are the same height.
"They put us through all kinds of steps. If the answer is no, they should let us know way ahead of time," Ghovaee said. "We need to get this economy kick-started."
So what now? The city still has high hopes for the redevelopment of Clearwater Beach, its crown jewel. But with the economy recovering, Clearwater seems to have sent mixed signals about hotel development.
"We're going to send those developers to other communities if we're not careful," said City Manager Bill Horne.
Now the city will take another look at its strategy for beach redevelopment to try to get the City Council and planners on the same page.
Horne said staffers will bring Clearwater's blueprint for beach redevelopment, called Beach by Design, back to the City Council for a discussion "so they can tell us what kinds of changes or amendments they'd like to see." That way, the city can give developers the right advice.
"I'd like to do that sooner rather than later," Horne said. "We don't want to delay."
The Hampton Inn was denied because three of the five council members thought the proposed 116-room hotel was too big for the site, a parking lot between two other hotels overlooking Clearwater Pass.
They also disapproved of the way the proposal would have split the existing Quality Hotel at 655 S Gulfview Blvd. and its parking lot into two separate properties. Planners called this a "creative" strategy to qualify the project for more hotel rooms under the city's development rules.
"That's my problem," Mayor George Cretekos said this week. "Do I want the hotel rooms? Yes. Do I want it to squeeze onto a small piece of property and divide up a property to make it work? No."
This is likely what the city's discussions will focus on.
Clearwater allows beach hotel developers to draw units from a pool of extra rooms, building more rooms than they otherwise could per acre.
Page asked the city to split his 1.4-acre Quality Hotel property into two parcels so it could qualify for up to 136 extra rooms from the density pool rather than just 100, which is the maximum for one property.
The proposed 116-room Hampton Inn on 0.8 acre asked for 76 extra rooms. The existing 91-room Quality Hotel would have been left on 0.6 acre, leaving it with too many rooms for the size of its property — a violation of city codes. To fix that problem, Page asked the city to award the Quality Hotel 60 extra rooms from the density pool, even though no new construction would be happening at that hotel.
Three City Council members balked at that, even though city planners recommended they approve it.
City planning director Michael Delk said staffers would change the way they approach that kind of proposal in the future.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.