DUNEDIN — Authority to approve or deny new construction plans for an unfinished mansion that has blighted Dunedin's waterfront for years will remain in the hands of city staff.
In a 3-2 vote Thursday night, the City Commission rejected neighbors' push for commissioners to take over that authority.
Staff normally rules on new construction plans, but a special exception in city code allows commissioners to "call up" single-family home projects that could threaten views of St. Joseph's Sound, hold public hearings and then decide their fate.
Commissioners Julie Ward Bujalski and Julie Scales argued for the commission to invoke the special exception. Dismissing City Attorney Tom Trask's warnings about getting involved, they said they saw no harm in giving residents a way to voice their opinions about 570 Edgewater Drive.
Neighbors, who call the partially completed concrete structure an "eyesore," want the three-story, 12,000-square-foot building demolished to make way for waterfront parking and stormwater drainage, or at least scaled down to the size of other nearby homes.
The new owner, German attorney Volker Raabe, has resisted neighbors' requests and instead plans to complete the structure.
"I would like those two parties to get together on what's acceptable to them, and if this is a process that would facilitate or allow that, then I would support that," Scales said.
However, Mayor Dave Eggers, Vice Mayor Ron Barnette and Commissioner David Carson countered that the house seems to meet existing code and the new construction will end the blight. They said they prefer to leave decisions about architecture to the expertise of city staff.
Furthermore, they believe nothing short of demolition will truly satisfy everyone.
"We have some basic property rights in this country. We have codes in place that these people have followed, and will follow, to finish that property," Carson said, adding that a smaller home would still block the view of the water. "To change those rules on them at the last minute after they've bought this property and want to finish it is wrong."
Added Barnette: "I want us to look forward, close a chapter, get on with things and work with these people as good neighbors and let this be an example of what we might do as we look at brand new properties."
The decision was a blow to the neighbors, who had hoped testimony from experts and residents during the quasi-judicial public hearings allowed under the "call up" procedure would either force changes to Raabe's plans or sway commissioners to impose restrictions.
The "call up" rule was adopted in 2010, along with stricter building codes, in response to an outcry over original plans for 570 Edgewater.
Developer Jeff Ricketts had planned a 12-bedroom, 11 1/2-bathroom, solar-powered home, but construction stopped after a bank foreclosed on the property in 2009.
Plans submitted to the city last month by Raabe slightly modify Ricketts' design. They show seven bedrooms, eight full bathrooms and three half baths. If approved, the home would also feature a front circular driveway, an elevator, two ground-floor garages and storage space, and several balconies.
A report presented to the commission Thursday says city staff, which is still reviewing the new application, has concerns so far about 14 items, including the building's height, the driveway's size and proposed tree removal. But the report said staff believes the architect or general contractor can correct the items that currently don't meet code.
The city doesn't "presently foresee an obstacle that would stop the building official from issuing a new permit," the report said.
The "call up" rule was intended for new projects, not partially-built structures, said Dunedin planning director Greg Rice. And he noted that when the commission calls up a project, a hearing occurs only if the property owner agrees.
He said the owner could instead file a court challenge, which City Attorney Tom Trask warned was likely if commissioners ordered the building dramatically redesigned or demolished.
Contractor Ray Lube told commissioners Thursday that the Raabes are willing to compromise. He defended the project, noting that it's next to two similar-sized condo complexes at the northernmost end of Edgewater Drive, leaving most of the waterfront visible.
Walter Allen, one of roughly a dozen neighbors who attended the meeting, called it "hypocritical" of city leaders to deny a public hearing on the very project that inspired the new building codes.
"Consider whether you really want that thing sitting at the head of our scenic corridor," said Allen, of President Street.
Alan Wilcox, however, said he understood commissioners' decision. The President Street resident said the case otherwise could have set dangerous precedent regarding the ability of government and neighbors to impose on taxpaying citizens' property rights.
"It may not be what I want," Wilcox said. But "as long as (Raabe's) doing something with it that the city says is legal and within code, I really can't disagree with them deciding not to pursue something that their staff can handle. Whatever happens to it, it's going to look better than it does now."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.