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Sand Key zoning dispute headed to District Court of Appeal

CLEARWATER — The City Council will appeal a three-judge panel's decision that it wrongly denied a Sand Key land owner's zoning request that drew strong opposition from a group of residents.

At its regular meeting Thursday, the council voted 4-1 to appeal the matter to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland. Council member Carlen Petersen was the lone dissenter.

"I'm not going to waste anymore taxpayers dollars on this," said Petersen, also the lone dissenter in the original council vote.

City attorney Pam Akin said the matter will be handled by an in-house attorney and would cost about $2,000.

In March, the council denied D.A. Bennett Co.'s request that its 3-acre slice of land at 1261 Gulf Blvd. be zoned Tourist as stated in the city's Development Code.

The designation would make way for a structure as tall as 100 feet on the site that is now home to the Shoppes on Sand Key, a commercial strip that caters to the island's residents.

Bennett appealed the decision to the 6th Judicial Circuit Appellate Division. On Monday, the court rendered a decision in his favor and ordered the city to zone the land Tourist.

"It's unfortunate that the city has chosen to continue asserting a position that has been found to have no legal merit," said Paul Raymond, Bennett's attorney. "Three judges unanimously found their position to be meritless. They want to continue to spend taxpayer money on that position, that's their decision."

City attorney Leslie Dougall-Sides told the council it had two legitimate grounds to appeal the decision.

Dougall-Sides said the court overstepped its authority when it ordered the city to zone the land Tourist. She said the court "simply should remand it back for action with accordance with the opinion," and not tell the council what to do.

Secondly, Dougall-Sides said, despite the court's order, the reason the zoning was denied was because the council found that the request did not meet one of the six criteria in the Development Code.

The criteria cited by the council was that the request was a "conflict with the needs and character of the neighborhood and the city."

A 20-year agreement between former owner U.S. Steel and Clearwater allowed up to 85,000 square feet of shops and restaurants to be built under a business zoning. The Shoppes on Sand Key was built. That zoning agreement expired in October 2006.

Bennett requested that the property be zoned Tourist as designated in the city's Development Code, but Akin said the Tourist-only designation was an oversight and that commercial should have been an option. The council changed the Development Code on Aug. 7, the same date the property was zoned commercial.

Sand Key resident JoEllen Farnham helped spearhead the grass roots "Save Our Shoppes" effort. She said the community is fully supportive of the city's actions.

Farnham said if the property is zoned Tourist, a developer could put 110 hotel rooms per acre on the property. If it is zoned commercial, only 50 rooms per acre are allowed.

"If zoned commercial, it would be less attractive to a hotel developer," Farnham said. "The other issue is he would be allowed to build higher, 10 stories. Under commercial, that's limited to five stories."

Farnham said the "Save Our Shoppes" group has raised funds and hired local attorney Alan Zimmet to assist it in fighting several matters, including this one, on the island.

"If they eliminate this retail, we would have to go off the island, either to Clearwater Beach or Belleair, in order to meet our needs," she said, "and the city recognizes the intent that it be commercial retail for the residents on the island."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or [email protected]

Sand Key zoning dispute headed to District Court of Appeal 12/05/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 14, 2008 1:10pm]
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