ST. PETE BEACH — It took four years of political and legal battles, but Coconut Inn owner Joe Caruso showcased a partial victory over the city Wednesday with the grand opening of the parklike renovations to the rear yard of his Pass-a-Grille hotel.
In what once was a parking area for the historic hotel, there are now several gazebos, an outdoor cooking area, water fountains, swings, bricked walkways and extensive landscaping.
"We had nearly 100 people there and once people saw it, they asked, 'This is what it was all about?' " Caruso said Thursday. "In fact, people just walking by think it is a city park and come in to sit or use the swings."
The large crowd attending the opening included Mayor Steve McFarlin and City Commissioners Marvin Shavlan, Jim Parent and Melinda Pletcher, Caruso said, as well as an irate neighbor who took pictures of the officials and loudly threatened to call the police because of the gathering.
The event, which began at 5:15 p.m. and lasted for little more than an hour, apparently did not violate any city rules.
"It was really nice," Caruso said. "Everybody got along. The mayor gave a nice speech. I am just letting bygones be bygones."
McFarlin agreed, calling the renovations to the Coconut Inn's yard, designed by Ralph Lickton of St. Pete Beach, "a great amenity for the island and a theme of hospitality for the entire city. It is a showcase of what Pass-a-Grille was and can be with investment."
Such amity with city officials was not always the case, however.
Caruso bought the Coconut Inn (formerly the LeRoy Hotel), at 113 11th Ave. in 2008 at the same time the city was establishing a new district for traditional and historic hotels in Pass-a-Grille.
A year later, Caruso had completed renovation of the hotel structure and sought the appropriate designation.
But because his hotel is on an interior street and not directly on Gulf Way, neighbors fought the change, fearing future renovations or additions would block views and change the character of the neighborhood.
About the same time Caruso was granted a permit to install a gazebo and other guest amenities on the lot behind the Coconut Inn.
Amid the growing controversy over future redevelopment of the inn, the city revoked the permit, arguing the project did not meet current building and zoning codes.
The dispute continued for years with Caruso resorting to legal action and the city imposing even stricter redevelopment rules for all hotels in Pass-a-Grille.
Caruso took the issue to court and won last year when Circuit Judge Amy M. Williams ruled the city had improperly issued a stop-work order in 2009.
Caruso withdrew his other lawsuit against the city over its denial of zoning and land use designation last summer.
Caruso owns three hotels in Pass-a-Grille — the Coconut Inn, the Sabal Palms at 1301 Gulf Way and the Havana Inn (former Villa Luna) at 1007 Gulf Way.
He is marketing the hotels as the "St. Pete Beach Boutique Hotel Collection" as destinations for individuals, couples and families.
For the past three years, the Coconut Inn was awarded a Certificate of Excellence by TripAdvisor and both the Coconut Inn and Sabal Palms received Superior Small Lodging White Glove Awards for four years.
Caruso is renovating the exterior of the 100-year-old Havana Inn where he says his "neighbors are much friendlier."