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Fans of Sand Key strip mall savor small victory

CLEARWATER — Supporters of a small Sand Key strip mall got the victory they wanted Tuesday.

For now.

The Community Development Board, an advisory arm to the City Council, denied a request to assign a new zoning designation to the Shoppes on Sand Key, a popular 3-acre strip a little more than a half-mile south of the Clearwater Pass Bridge.

To claps and cheers from the roughly 200 residents who packed City Hall, board members said the change would affect the character of the island and aggravate the city's evacuation procedures.

Rumors were flying for months that the land owner planned to tear down the tiny strip mall and replace it with a hotel. However, the owner's attorneys say there are no current plans for development.

Although residents were happy with Tuesday's decision, the board's decision was only a recommendation. The issue now goes before the City Council, which is expected to make a final decision Thursday night.

"This is a major step forward, but we still have a long way to go," said Mary Reinhardt, a flight attendant for AirTran Airways and the chairwoman of Save Our Shoppes, a grass roots group working to keep the retail outlet alive. "I think the (City) Council will be fair, but this isn't a slam dunk by any means."

She said many residents were fearful they'd lose the only retail outlet on Sand Key.

Anchored by Backwater's, a restaurant known for its steaks and seafood, the strip also includes an Italian restaurant, a men's clothing store and a bank.

Michael Foley, a Clearwater attorney who represents the land owner — a Clearwater real estate group called D.A. Bennett Co. — said he's upset that his client has been portrayed as a "greedy property owner when he's not." He said the owner is entitled to reasonable use of his property and hopes the council will take that into consideration Thursday.

In February, D.A. Bennett Co. went before the board to request a zoning change to "tourist," which would allow at least a 100-foot-tall hotel. The land was previously zoned "business," but the designation expired last year.

That meeting drew some 300 residents. A vote to deny the owner's request ended in a 3-3 tie after Sand Key resident and board Chairman Nick Fritsch recused himself.

On Tuesday, the board — sporting two members who weren't at the February meeting — denied the request in a 4-2 vote.

Either party can appeal to the courts the City Council's decision.

Fans of Sand Key strip mall savor small victory 03/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 5:25pm]
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