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Coconut Inn in Pass-a-Grille carries on fight on two fronts

Owner Joe Caruso is trying to get his Coconut Inn traditional hotel district zoning and has sued the city over a recreation area.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2009)

Owner Joe Caruso is trying to get his Coconut Inn traditional hotel district zoning and has sued the city over a recreation area.

ST. PETE BEACH — Coconut Inn owner Joe Caruso's determined battle with the city over redevelopment rights entered a new phase last week.

Caruso simultaneously reapplied for special traditional hotel district, or THD, zoning and sued the city over its refusal to honor a city-issued permit to renovate and expand the Pass-a-Grille hotel's outside recreation areas.

What Caruso wants is twofold: the right to rebuild his hotel in the future according to current building and FEMA codes, and the right immediately to add a fire pit, a barbecue grill, paving, fencing and two covered gazebo sitting areas to the existing structure.

The city has blocked both efforts.

Caruso bought the deteriorating 84-year-old former Leroy Motel at 113 11th Ave. in 2008. At the time, the 11-unit hotel was a $20-a-night transient lodging establishment.

He refurbished the renamed Coconut Inn inside and out, to the near-universal praise of his neighbors and city officials.

Last year, he applied for THD designation for both the Coconut Inn and an adjacent vacant lot to the rear that the hotel used for parking and recreation.

The rezoning was rejected by the commission in response to strong opposition from neighbors.

The problem for Pass-a-Grille residents is that the Coconut Inn is on an interior street and backs up to a residential neighborhood.

Caruso wants to be able to use the undeveloped rear part of the property when he rebuilds. Residents worry that expanded commercial use of the site would be intrusive.

Last year, the city's attorney noted that the back lot had been used as part of the hotel "for a great many years."

The city's current codes allow older hotels to apply for special zoning to allow redevelopment. Such rezoning must be approved by the City Commission.

Next month, the commission hopes to receive a joint recommendation from its Planning and Historic Preservation boards on changing the THD code to regulate just how older hotels would be allowed to redevelop.

The boards are expected to meet this month.

There are nine primary hotels in Pass-a-Grille that rent rooms to transient guests.

The Gulf Way Inn and the Sable Palms Inn were granted THD zoning about a year ago but have not submitted rebuilding plans to the city.

Other hotels operating in Pass-a-Grille, beside the Coconut Inn, are Inn on the Beach, Castle Hotel, Island's Inn Resort, the Fairhaven Estate Bed and Breakfast, the Pass-a-Grille Beach Hotel and the Keystone Hotel.

"If the hotels are not allowed to run competitively, they will disappear and the properties will become McMansions," Caruso told the commission last spring.

Caruso's lawsuit asks the court to either force the city to allow his recreational redevelopment — halted a year ago — to resume, or pay Caruso the more than $60,000 he already invested and the cost of returning the lot to its original state, including a shuffleboard court and barbecue area.

The city maintains that it mistakenly issued Caruso the permit for the gazebos, but the former facilities cannot be replaced because their grandfathered status was lost when Caruso began the then-city-approved renovation work.

"I didn't want to file this lawsuit," Caruso said Thursday. "I asked the commission last month to settle this, but all I got was blank stares. I am still hoping for a happy resolution."

Caruso's reapplication for THD zoning is scheduled be considered by the planning board Oct. 19. The final decision will be made by the City Commission.

Coconut Inn in Pass-a-Grille carries on fight on two fronts 10/04/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 4, 2010 5:17pm]
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