Pass-a-Grille residents circulate petition against Coconut Inn rezoning

Coconut Inn owner Joe Caruso wants the city to rezone the 84-year-old inn at 113 11th Ave. and a vacant lot on 12th Avenue behind it.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2009)

Coconut Inn owner Joe Caruso wants the city to rezone the 84-year-old inn at 113 11th Ave. and a vacant lot on 12th Avenue behind it.

ST. PETE BEACH — An increasingly controversial proposal to allow the Coconut Inn to rebuild in the future will again come before the City Commission on Tuesday.

A petition opposing the Coconut Inn's request also is circulating among Pass-a-Grille residents and is expected to be presented at the hearing. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m.

Coconut Inn owner Joe Caruso is asking the city to rezone and change the city's land use map for the inn and a now vacant lot on 12th Avenue just behind the 84-year-old inn at 113 11th Ave. — a residential side street just east of Gulf Way and the Gulf of Mexico.

Unlike other tourist lodgings in Pass-a-Grille, the Coconut Inn is on a side street in the middle of a residential area.

The requested Traditional Hotel District zoning allows small tourist lodgings in Pass-A-Grille to rid themselves of nonconforming status so they can rebuild or renovate at any time. The zoning district also allows up to 20 percent of a building's floor space to be set aside for nonresidential uses.

In 1998, the city specifically designated the Coconut Inn as an eligible property when it amended the boundaries of the THD district. The action was taken to ensure that operating small tourist lodgings could rebuild at any time and not just after a hurricane.

Residents fear that if the Coconut Inn is rezoned, the now quiet, cozy tourist hotel could become a jazz club or public restaurant.

Caruso says he will offer a plan to the city that would restrict his redevelopment rights and, he hopes, alleviate residents' concerns.

"All the rumors being spread about my intentions, that there could be a jazz club or disco, are completely false," Caruso said.

His redevelopment plan shows, he says, that any future building would resemble a single-family house. He would provide a 10-foot landscaped buffer for neighbors to the east, scale back the building structure and eliminate eye-height windows or balconies on the east side.

"Any future development on my property would be less intense than what's presently there," Caruso said.

The case, which began last September, may also touch on complaints by Caruso and others that Ron Holehouse, who owns nearby tourist rental properties and is a member of the city's Planning Board, is illegally renting part of his home, which fronts on 12th Avenue and is in view of part of the Coconut Inn property.

Holehouse, who is a signatory to the petition against the Coconut Inn proposal, was an early, strong opponent of the rezoning. He argues that allowing the Coconut Inn to expand onto its back lot would be a "clear intrusion of commercial use into a residential neighborhood."

Holehouse sent e-mails to area residents in September, asking them to join him in opposing the Coconut Inn proposal — and to send their own e-mails to that effect to the City Commission.

Caruso's attorney, Tom Reynolds, suggested Friday that Holehouse's opposition is motivated by his ownership of competing tourist lodging properties.

"That may be the reason he is pushing so hard to have proposed rezoning denied," Reynolds said.

Last September, a complaint that Holehouse was illegally renting a loft at his private home was raised during a commission meeting and prompted City Manager Mike Bonfield to investigate.

Bonfield later reported that Holehouse told him he had removed the loft from his Web site and in the future would only use it for visiting family members and guests.

However, Holehouse said Friday he is licensed to rent several units in his home and that this includes the loft.

Karl Holley, the city's community development director, is investigating "several anonymous complaints" against Holehouse, as well as other properties that may be illegally renting space to tourists.

He plans to report his findings to the commission in several weeks and ask for a policy ruling regarding enforcement.

The city's short-term rental ordinance allows any residential property to be rented for less than 30 days, but it restricts the total number of rentals to three times a year. More frequent rentals requires an occupational license and zoning for transient accommodations.

"We know there are potentially numerous violations occurring regularly in the city," Holley said.

Pass-a-Grille residents circulate petition against Coconut Inn rezoning 01/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 9, 2010 3:31am]

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