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To Pelham: Save Pinellas' beaches

A beach community along Pinellas County's fragile and overbuilt barrier islands is trying to stuff a few more buildings on the waterfront. It's a familiar story, except that the state now has a law that is supposed to prevent it. That law, the 1985 Growth Management Act, is supposed to make cities and counties think about the consequences of their development decisions. It is also supposed to prevent coastal development mistakes _ to, in the words of the state comprehensive plan, "encourage land and water uses which are compatible with the protection of sensitive coastal resources." Unfortunately, in St. Petersburg Beach, city officials who adopted a growth plan that talks frankly about many of their own mistakes are now trying to compound them.

The beach commission earlier this month decided to change the development capacity on two acres of land in the 3700 block of Gulf Boulevard. The land now is home to a 12-unit motel and two homes. Because a developer wants to tear all that down and build a 48-unit condominium/hotel, the commission decided to change the land-use designation. Incredibly, it wants to allow four times as much development.

The state Department of Community Affairs (DCA), the state's growth watchdog, has tried to warn the city. In August, it advised St. Petersburg Beach that a condo/hotel was incompatible with surrounding homes, would increase demands on roads and services in a fully developed beach city, and would make hurricane evacuation even more difficult. DCA also noted, importantly, that the state's development codes "require that local governments direct population concentrations away from known or predicted coastal high-hazard areas."

The city, sadly, hasn't listened. Instead, city officials argue the current land-use was a "mistake" and they somehow owe the property owner the right to a development bonanza at public expense. Their official response to DCA was, in a word, embarrassing. They said, for example, that homes in the neighborhood would be adequately insulated from the new development by, get this,

the 50-foot-wide street that separates them. They also argued the new development would "actually aid (hurricane) evacuation efforts. Such facilities have historically been the first to evacuate in the event of an impending disaster." Is this a bad joke?

It's too bad that DCA Secretary Thomas Pelham is forced into the middle of so many local government zoning decisions. But the growth law, if it is to mean anything, must at least stop the development madness on barrier islands. The mistake, in this case, is a comparatively small one, but so are most of modern-day assaults to the waterfront. The point is that Pinellas' barrier islands can't afford any more mistakes. Pelham ought to say so, forcefully.