CLEARWATER — Clearwater Beach's state representative has his work cut out for him.
Jim Frishe is getting an earful from beach residents who don't trust Clearwater's government. They suspect the city is up to something shady with the Clearwater Municipal Marina. Meanwhile, the city says it has nothing to hide, and it's asking Frishe to pass a law on its behalf.
Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, is trying to figure out how to bridge the gap in time for this spring's legislative session.
The subject of all this controversy is an 84-year-old "reverter clause" that dates to when Florida gave the local government a swath of land in Clearwater Bay to build a causeway to the beach. Language in that 1925 deal stipulated that this land must be used only for public purposes like parks and recreation, or it will be returned to the state.
The city wants Frishe to eliminate this rule so it can eventually redevelop the marina, which is located on this land.
But about 70 beach residents packed a public hearing Monday night at City Hall, asking Frishe not to do it.
First, Mayor Frank Hibbard stood before the crowd to address rumors that have been circulating.
"There are no conspiracies," Hibbard said. "This is merely an opportunity to do housecleaning that will someday allow us to redevelop the marina in a way that is suitable to all the citizens of Clearwater."
Then, one by one, more than a dozen beach residents made their case to Frishe. Many were suspicious that Clearwater will strike a deal with a developer to build something on the marina property that they won't want, such as a hotel.
"We want the reverter clause to stay in place," said David Muzio, president of the Island Estates Civic Association. "We do not trust the city at all."
"I have a vision in my mind of another Hyatt sitting there," said Pat Power.
"We don't need another high-rise," said Anne Garris.
The mayor suggested that Frishe add a new restriction on what the city can do with the marina. Hibbard said that, under the current law, the city could sell the property without a referendum, although it has no intention of doing so.
City officials say they want to keep the marina's commercial and recreational fishing fleet, but they think Clearwater should do something to attract more visitors to the marina. The mayor said no developers had expressed interest in the property since 2004.
"I have no intention of ever selling that land. It's too important," Hibbard told the crowd. "It is a gem, but it also can be better."
As for Frishe, he's still leaning toward addressing the reverter clause in the next legislative session for technical reasons. For one thing, Clearwater is probably already violating the clause.
The Legislature will likely pass a law this spring implementing a "working waterfront" tax break that Florida voters approved for marinas in 2008. That might automatically trigger Clearwater's reverter clause, Frishe said. The city is likely violating the clause because it leases parcels of the marina property to businesses like Crabby Bill's Restaurant.
"In reality, the city shouldn't even be leasing retail space," Frishe said Tuesday. "The state hasn't come in and said they're going to take it back. But relying on the good will of others is not a long-term solution."
Frishe plans to add language to his bill that would require a voter referendum if the city ever tries to sell the marina. "We're going to tweak it," he said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.