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Beach condo plan divides neighbors

It is just an empty lot, an acre or so of waterfront scrub and weeds. Yet the sliver of land has ignited this beach town with a fervor not seen in years.

Tucked between a bank and a seafood restaurant, 17925 Gulf Blvd. is one of the last undeveloped lots on the county's barrier islands. It has pitted neighbor against neighbor and fueled a philosophical debate over whether someone can dictate the use of another's property.

On the surface, the issue is simply one of a zoning change. But some say it runs much deeper and goes to the heart of a trend toward curbing development: a close-the-door-behind-you sentiment held by many who have moved to Florida.

Early this year, real estate developer Donald Schwartz, who bought the land as part of a bigger parcel in 1970, asked the town to change the zoning on the intracoastal lot from commercial to ROR (residential, office, retail) for a condominium project.

His plan, he said, is to build a five-story, 49-unit condominium with a marina, swimming pool and recreation center. Under existing zoning law, ROR limits development to 15 units per acre, so he would then need to apply for additional variances.

The request set off alarms in the community of about 2,700 as opponents quickly organized to try to block the request.

Petitions were passed and 835 signatures in opposition have been gathered, organizers say. In April, when the matter first went before the planning and zoning board, an overflow crowd of 150 showed up at an afternoon meeting to protest.

Although opponents say they draw their ranks from the whole town, their stronghold is a three-building, 352-unit condominium project called Redington Towers directly across Gulf Boulevard from the empty lot.

Residents of the Towers, which county officials say is perhaps the most densely populated condo in Pinellas County, argue that the quiet flavor of their community will be destroyed if Schwartz's request is approved.

"It's the density that we really oppose," said Richard Mattus, a Towers resident for 10 years and a member of the Concerned Redington Shores Owners committee. He said residents would not mind so much if the project were 15 units.

Also at issue are crowding, snarled traffic and polluted waterways. Committee members say their town has hit a saturation point.

Mattus and other committee members acknowledge their condo could be perceived as violating the same principle. The three buildings, the tallest of which is 21 stories, are on just less than 5{ acres. That averages to about 66 units per acre.

But they say theirs has been a fixture on the beach for two decades and they are more worried about the future than the past.

"I think every community has to draw the line somewhere," said Bob Coe, a Towers resident since 1990. He added, "I believe two wrongs don't make a right."

Schwartz, however, said he is more than a little put out by the protracted fight he faces. And he is taking it personally.

"There's jealousy. There's sour grapes. There's meanness," Schwartz said.

"They're saying, "You can't have the same thing I do,'

" he said. "They're saying, "I'm in Florida now, why should anyone else reap the benefits that I have now?'

"

Schwartz was one of three partners who originally developed the Redington Towers project. He lives there. He said he bought the 6.2-acre parcel on both sides of Gulf Boulevard and has made no secret that he wanted to develop the intracoastal lot as well as the gulf side.

County records show the intracoastal land had an assessed value in 1992 of $624,100.

"You don't walk away from multimillion-dollar investments," Schwartz said.

Schwartz added he has been a part of the community for 23 years and his properties have made a lot of people a lot of money.

"We have not done anything bad for Redington Shores," he said.

He said he is angry that some of his neighbors and friends in the Towers, many of whom he says arrived in Florida in the past few years, want to control his land use.

The question has gone from the Town Council to the Planning and Zoning Board, back to the council when the board refused to take action in April, and back to Planning and Zoning Board with an admonishment from the council that it make a recommendation. It has not yet been placed on the agenda.

Mayor James Feimster said he finds the entire controversy "a little ridiculous." He shrugs it off as "I think they're (Towers residents) worried about blocking their view."

Feimster adds, "I think a person should be able to build on their own property if they have the proper permits."

But James Ellmaker, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Board, says the issue is much too important to not require careful study. He said he is upset by the proposed zoning change because the planned condo also would require additional variances.

"If this is okayed as is, then our zoning code would be rendered impotent," he said.

Ellmaker insists he is keeping an open mind, but he added, "The people are getting tired of the land being raped."

Ellmaker is critical of the Town Council and the mayor for trying to railroad the proposal through.

Feimster calls Ellmaker a "big blowhard."

Committee members say the issue has awakened a dormant activism in them. "The fact that 125 to 150 people turned out for these meetings _ that's got to be some kind of a record _ ought to mean something," said Harrell Altizer, a town resident for three years.

"We may exemplify a lot of beach communities that have a lot of sleepy people who don't pay much attention to what is happening in their town until suddenly they wake up and realize their town is changing in a way they don't like," Altizer added.

David Healy, executive director of Pinellas Planning Council, said the flap in Redington Shores is typical of the fight being fought all across Florida.

In the past few years, he said, townspeople, especially in beach communities, have taken a strong interest in controlling development.

"The folks see some of the consequences of overdevelopment: the crush of people, the traffic congestion, the compromise of the environment," he said. "We've made some mistakes

.

.

. and we should learn by them."

But, Healy added, sometimes the zeal to correct the past is tinged with self-interest. "These people (across the state) are genuine about their concerns, but there also is a dimension that they don't want to compromise what they came to Florida for."

Fred Hammesfahr, a Redington Towers resident, fully admits he wants to keep the community as it was when he moved there three years ago.

He said he sees the density of his own condo and neighboring ones but that is no reason to allow the next one. "It's like pills: One pill may be tremendous for you, but five are terrible."

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