Saturday, April 21, 2018
News Roundup

Latest St. Pete Beach flap is over remote parking lots

ST. PETE BEACH — Repeated protests from Punta Vista residents, angry about a Sirata Beach Resort off-site parking lot, led to a 90-day moratorium on consideration of any temporary-use applications and may have contributed to the April dismissal of former City Manager Mike Bonfield.

The lot is at 5195 Gulf Blvd., at the corner of Punta Vista Drive, just south of the Sirata and at the entrance to Punta Vista's small enclave of waterfront homes.

The Sirata bought the property, which had been vacant for about seven years, last year with the intent to eventually develop it. Bonfield informally approved the lot for Sirata employees' use last fall.

Sirata owner Gregg Nicklaus later applied for a temporary-use permit.

Controversy over Bonfield's actions and the continuing use of the lot erupted in hours' worth of debate at commission meetings in April and May.

The commission paused temporary-use permits to give the Planning Board time to review the issue June 17 and make recommendations to the commission.

The Planning Board will be asked to determine authority and procedures for temporary-use permit approvals, how permits would be affected by zoning regulations, the time length for permits, and conditions that could be imposed.

Interim City Manager Elaine Edmunds said the Sirata will be allowed to continue using the parking lot during the moratorium.

Code violations are being pursued, however. Edmunds said an unpermitted sign at the Sirata lot has been removed.

Nicklaus stresses that the site is directly on Gulf Boulevard, a state road, and has numerous commercial neighbors, including a liquor store, a taxi service and shops. He maintains that a parking use conforms to current land development codes.

Sam Dudding, whose home borders the lot, says he and his family have witnessed lot users smoking marijuana, urinating in public and using foul language, and they've found used condoms and other trash accumulating along the fence line and even in his yard.

Tom Callahan, perhaps the most vocal of the Punta Vista residents, is adamantly opposed to the lot being used for parking, calling it a "rezoning coup" that is "devaluing quality of life, reducing safety of residents and devaluing their properties."

He submitted a petition signed by 23 residents asking that the parking lot be shut down.

Home values on his street have fallen more than 4 percent since January, compared to a 4 percent increase for residential homes throughout the city, he said.

Callahan's persistent opposition included calls for investigating Bonfield's actions.

When questioned by newly elected Mayor Maria Lowe in March, Bonfield acknowledged that he had approved the use and told Lowe that he would allow the Sirata to use the lot "until it comes before the City Commission" for review.

Such review is not required under the city rules, which only call for applications to be submitted to the city manager for review.

Previously, applications were approved either by the city manager or his staff. Only once recently did the commission review a temporary-permit application.

The Sirata permit was to be considered by the commission at its April 22 meeting, but discussion was delayed to allow consideration of several similar requests.

Instead, at that April 22 meeting, Lowe and Commissioners Melinda Pletcher and Terri Finnerty called for Bonfield's dismissal, refusing to give their reasons.

Subsequently, the commission devoted hours to discussing temporary-use permit procedures during a series of meetings.

Particularly at issue is the lack of clear guidelines as to how permits are to be reviewed and approved.

Pending temporary-use renewal requests for off-site parking on Gulf Boulevard include those from the Grand Plaza Resorts and Sungold LLC. No complaints about those applications have been received.

"Whatever the current status, policy and procedural issues with these three parking lots, they are clearly being extensively used and exhibit a need that may not otherwise be met," Edmunds said in her report to the commission.

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