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Institute's plan might not need public hearing

Some neighbors of the Pinellas Marine Institute may think they won avictory when a city board recently rejected the institute's plan to raze and rebuild its local headquarters.

But the victory may not be that clear cut.

The institute, a 15-year-old non-profit agency that motivates troubled youths through marine-oriented activities, has submitted a revised building plan to the city that may need only staff approval.

City attorney James Devito is expected to issue an opinion on the matter by the end of the week. He was out of the city Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

A previous building plan went through city staff as well as the city Board of Adjustment in January. After a public hearing, the board - against staff recommendation - refused to grant a variance to allow the construction. The plan exceeded minimum setback requirements.

The institute responded in two ways: It appealed the decision to the Pinellas County Circuit Court and it submitted the revised building plan to the city.

Institute executive director Tony Traviesa said he thinks the revised plan does not need Board of Adjustment review partly because it meets city setback requirements. He expects Devito to concur.

If that's the case, no new public hearing is necessary.

At the public hearing before the Board of Adjustment in January, some neighbors said they opposed the institute's plan to rebuild because they feared it would lower property values. They also said they were worried that the youths aren't adequately supervised and could pose a threat to the neighborhood and that the program would expand.

One neighbor's home was burglarized in 1986 by a boy from the program. He was arrested.

But institute officials say they are eager to prove they are a good neighbor.

"We still want to assist the neighborhood in allaying any concerns they have," said Joe Lettelleir, chairman of the institute's board of directors. "What we want to do is respond to their concerns."

Lettelleir said the 1986 incident occurred when some youths were spending the night there, a practice that since has been stopped.

Traviesa said that there is enough supervision and pointed out that the institute predates many of the neighbors.

The institute has a maximum enrollment of 41 students, ages 13 to 18, and will not expand, Traviesa said.

Housed at 3101 Gulf Blvd., the institute works with youths referred by probation officers and youth counselors with the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

While students attend the institute, they can prepare for the GED high school equivalency exam. They also take classes in scuba diving, life-saving techniques, seamanship and other marine activities.

The institute boasts a 70 percent success rate. Based on research by the institute, 30 percent of the institute's graduates are re-arrested.

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