Some people who check out the city marina on Clearwater Beach see a place with an old Florida feel where they can walk around, look at boats and have a seafood dinner. But Clearwater officials see something else: undeveloped potential.
Hoping that the marina property can be revitalized, Clearwater officials have written a bill that asks the Florida Legislature to give it relief from some historic protections for the marina. Opponents of the maneuver want the marina left alone, but portions of the marina property are poorly utilized, aging and unattractive. It is past time to improve the marina property.
In 1925, state lawmakers gave Clearwater a swath of state land across the Intracoastal Waterway for construction of a causeway linking downtown Clearwater and Clearwater Beach. But legislators put a condition on the gift: The land was to be used only for public purposes, and if that caveat were violated, the land would revert to the state.
The reverter clause was virtually forgotten for years. The causeway and bridges were built within the boundaries of the swath, but so were the beach roundabout, the entrance to Island Estates, some private motels and docks, and the city marina with its parking lots and row of shops.
The reverter was rediscovered three years ago when an issue arose concerning the private docks. Current city officials learned then that over the years, uses had been approved that the 1925 law did not allow. Those violations were hurriedly corrected when the 2007 Legislature passed a bill legalizing all the uses that existed at that time.
Now, the city wants the 2010 Legislature to eliminate the 1925 limitations on the filled upland portion of the property so it can be developed, whether for a public or private purpose. Submerged lands on either side of the causeway would remain under the protection of the reverter clause.
Last month state Rep. Jim Frishe held a public meeting on Clearwater Beach to gather input about the city's proposal, and he faced a crowd that was generally opposed and also suspicious. Some residents had heard a developer was interested in building a hotel on the marina property. They feared that if a hotel were built there, the public's access to the docks and boats would be closed off.
There is, in fact, a developer who has talked with the city about the possibility of building a hotel on the site. The city also has toyed with the idea of building a parking garage at the marina, and officials are eager to improve the unattractive retail strip and surrounding asphalt parking lots.
Those upland facilities actually detract from the appearance of the marina. People like to look at boats, whether driving by or walking along the docks. Yet the ground-level retail strip and parking lots partially block the view of the marina, and the uses in the retail building, including a post office branch, have not always been appropriate for a marina in a tourist area.
Whether a major hotel, presumably with its own parking garage, would be a better use of the marina property is open to debate. Many residents might prefer better shopping on the property or a major recreational facility that would draw tourists and locals to Clearwater Beach.
However, with the reverter clause in place, any revitalization of the upland marina property is unlikely. Residents concerned about losing the protections of the reverter can take comfort in the fact that for nearly any kind of development, voters will be in control. The city has included in the proposed bill specific language that would require a referendum before the marina property could be sold or its land use and zoning changed. Since most of the marina property now is designated Transportation Utility, which allows only transportation-related uses, a referendum would be necessary before a hotel could be built there.
In 2009, it is not unreasonable for the city government to seek relief from some of the limitations of a 1925 law, as long as voters get the final say about how their public property will be used.