PORT RICHEY — Erik Suojanen has grand plans for the 3.5 acres he purchased south of Waterfront Park.
He wants to build a restaurant and a tiki bar, a coffee and ice cream shop, a retail store and a business offering rentals of kayaks, pontoon boats and johnboats. He also wants to build a 1,200-foot lighted boardwalk and several docks giving him 35 wet slips, which he hopes to rent to boaters and allow for vessels to dock and visit the destination. His hope is the project will generate 30 jobs.
But the property at 5419 Treadway Drive, adjacent to Seaside Inn and Hooters restaurants, sits in the heart of Port Richey's Waterfront Overlay District. Suojanen told City Council his plans have become tangled in red tape, and now officials are considering revising the decade-old waterfront zoning restrictions that have done little to spur economic development.
The council in 2002 created the district — a 19.74-acre swath north of the Pithlachascotee River, west of U.S. 19 and south of Waterfront Park — in an effort to steer development along the waterfront.
Zoning requirements in the district allow for everything from professional office to neighborhood scale retail, restaurants, hotel or motel, and recreational aquatic activities such as fishing charter and nonmotorized watercraft rentals.
But in an effort to "improve the physical image of the waterfront community" and "protect the environmental sensitivity of the river" the district also has its restrictions on parking, signage, and renting of motorized watercraft that Suojanen says is stalling his hopes for the project, dubbed Gill Dawg.
Suojanen — who owns the Pampering Plumber with his wife, Colleen — said it has been a year and a half since he bought the property, and he's still trying to obtain approval for his project. He said he's continuing to pay debt service on the property while it generates no income.
The biggest sticking point: parking. Suojanen said the district's zoning requirements of four spots per 1,000-square-feet would only allow him four parking spots. He said he needs 40.
Suojanen said the district parking restrictions are based on the city's ill-fated plan years ago to build a parking garage near U.S. 19 and Grand Boulevard to serve development the district was intended to generate. The city never built the parking garage, but the parking limits on businesses in the district remain in place.
"You can't have a business without any parking," he said.
Suojanen also wants to rent out motorized pontoon and Jon boats, which are banned by the district's code. He agreed when the council said it wanted to bar rentals of personal watercraft like Jet Skis within the waterfront district.
"If not this type of business on the waterfront, then what kind of business?" he asked the council. "We are not big box retail, we are mom and pop shop locals and we need your help to get this rolling."
Suojanen was met by a City Council receptive to his concept and willing to look at amending the district's zoning code.
The board gave the green light to City Manager Tom O'Neill to have the city attorney draft amendments to the district's code. The council would need to hold two public hearings on any changes before voting on them.
But council member Terry Rowe, who said he supports the project, still urged the board to scrutinize any proposed changes to parking restrictions.
"I just want to make sure we do this right. I don't want to open Pandora's box," he said.
Vice Mayor Bill Colombo agreed that the ordinance drafts should be reviewed by city planning officials for recommendations before going to the council for consideration.
"I think it's a good use for the area," Colombo said of Suojanen's business plan. "It's just a matter of how we get there."