OZONA — Rick Bennett says his Speckled Trout Marina here must expand to survive. However, his neighbors fear his expansion plans would harm the historic waterfront community.
"The economic reality is that small marinas like this are being forced out because we are not allowed to bring in enough business to support us,'' Bennett says.
On Tuesday, the Pinellas County Commission will discuss changing the zoning and land use designation for the Speckled Trout Marina from residential to commercial recreation — changes that would allow Bennett to substantially increase his boat storage area and give him rights to one day expand a waterside bait shop to a duplex for overnight accommodations.
Bennett purchased the original marina, a 2½-acre property on the Intracoastal Waterway, in 2001. Two years ago, he purchased three acres of adjacent land across Bayshore Drive with the intention of storing more boats on trailers, he said. He currently stores about 70 boats there, but expanding onto what is now a grassy, open area would put boat storage closer to homes.
Old-timers easily identify the Speckled Trout by 24 pillars protruding from the water. They are remnants of an abandoned effort by a previous owner to build a restaurant. Bennett's colorful bait house is located there now.
The marina, first established more than 100 years ago, is a non-conforming use under current codes. If the county approves Tuesday's agenda item, the marina would become a conforming use, allowing Bennett to expand the marina's boat-storage capacity on the property across the street from the water and keep rights to build a duplex on the water.
"If I am able to bring in more business, it would be good for everybody,'' he said. "And no, I'm not going to build any big buildings — no condos and definitely not a duplex at this time. I just want to store more boats.''
While about 24 residents sent county commissioners letters in support of the changes, more than 60 signed a petition against the rezoning. The petition states that approval "... establishes a dangerous precedent.''
Brian Smith, president of the Ozona Village Improvement Society and an opponent of the project, explained that the community is concerned about a domino effect.
"If you start rezoning and changing things, it can get complicated,'' said Smith, who is the former Pinellas County planning director. "Other property owners would also seek to become commercial, and we won't know where it all goes.''
Gail Conover's home is adjacent to the Speckled Trout. She said that an expansion "... would be hazardous. Our house was built in 1895, and there are other old houses here too. We are concerned that if boats there do not have proper tie-downs, and if during a storm the boats blow into someone's home, people like us who live around the border would never be able to build the home back up again.''
Maureen Bracy, who also owns property near the marina, agreed. "But our main opposition is that this is a residential area. We disagree with businesses who can purchase in a residential area, like they did, and convert a residential property into what is called commercial-recreation. It is not fair for Ozona,'' she said.
John Cueva, the county's planning department zoning manager, reviewed the case before it was sent to the County Commission, and he is not surprised that many residents have concerns.
But Cueva pointed out that the Speckled Trout Marina is the first of "… about three very old marinas that have been operating a long time as non-conforming, and doing this now has the potential to bring the area up,'' he said.
If the county approves the change, Bennett would be required to sign a development agreement with the county that has a list of conditions attached.
"When you think about it, the development agreement includes so many conditions, if you will, like extensive buffering between the marina and neighbors and limited hours of operation. A (reason) for the development agreement is to make sure the residents and the businesses exist in a harmonious manner.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4163. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.