TARPON SPRINGS — Jack Willie's Tarpon Turtle Grill and Marina's deck is the scorn of some and a savior to others.
That was evident Monday night when nearly 100 people attended a Tarpon Springs Planning and Zoning Board meeting to voice their support or opposition to the restaurant's outdoor seating capacity.
The restaurant has been locked in a battle with neighbors for months over the deck that extends onto the city's Lake Tarpon.
Some local residents said the outdoor atmosphere is too loud and, more importantly, was never approved by the city.
But supporters, who appeared to outnumber the opposition, said that single parents would lose their jobs if the city denied a request to allow the Tarpon Turtle to increase its seating at 1513 Lake Tarpon Avenue from 150 to 213. The site plan application would also allow outdoor dining.
One resident had on a T-shirt that said: "Save the Turtle."
"Are you going to uphold the self interest of a few or what's better for Tarpon Springs," asked Don Adams, a city resident and Tarpon Turtle patron. "It's a drawing attraction for Tarpon Springs business."
But Joseph Novak, who lives at the neighboring Lake Tarpon Sail and Tennis Club, said that they were pleased to see a family restaurant until "it escalated into a large bar with all kinds of entertainment and activities going on."
"It changed our lives," Novak said. "We used to have our windows open. We can't anymore."
The Planning and Zoning Board, which debated the issue for more than four hours, recommended that the Tarpon Turtle be allowed to have 181 indoor and outdoor seats but no outdoor amplified sounds.
The ultimate decision will rest with Tarpon's City Commission, which will tackle the matter at its regular meeting next Tuesday.
Ed Armstrong, an attorney who represented some of the residents opposing the Tarpon Turtle's request, said the board was in a "real tough spot."
They listened to four hours of passionate testimony on both sides, he said. "It's a very tough situation for those folks."
The City Commission approved the Tarpon Turtle's initial site plan that called for 150 seats and no outdoor seating. The restaurant opened in May 2006 but with 240 seats and some outdoor seating.
Owner Don Alvino said there was no way he could keep the restaurant open with just 150 seats. He said the fire department gave him an occupancy certificate for 240 seats and so he thought he was working well within his boundary.
"We have to close the doors," Alvino said. "We need a minimum of 215, 213 seats. It was ignorance on my part and I realize it's not an excuse but I was with the belief that we had 240 seats."
With only 150 seats, Alvino said: "I might as well take the keys and throw them in the middle of the Tarpon."
Some neighbors began to complain about the noise, the trash and the packed parking lots and streets. From May 2006 to November 2008, there have been 257 complaints filed with the Tarpon Springs police.
Alvino said all those complaints are from the same four or five people.
The city's code enforcement did find that the Tarpon Turtle was in violation of its site plan and that it didn't have the proper grease trap for the restaurant. Alvino has been fined $250 a day since November for being out of compliance. The bill is now $44,000.
"All we want them to do is live within the limits of the approval he has received," said Ed Mazur, who hired Armstrong and lives near the Tarpon Turtle. "We checked all the proceedings and he never received approved approval from the city for anything more than 150 seats and he has been generally well above that."