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Safety Harbor rejects bayfront restaurant

Any local supporters that Walter Loick and Russell Bowman may have had during their final pitch for a downtown waterfront restaurant were mostly silent. But their opposition was vocal.

In the end, the Safety Harbor City Commission voted down a request for a zoning change that would have allowed developers Loick and Bowman to build a three-story seafood restaurant on an acre next to the city marina.

The rehearing was the second time that the commission, acting as the Community Redevelopment agency, voted against the request. The audience, which packed the commission chamber, applauded the Tuesday night decision.

Loick and Bowman had hoped to persuade commissioners to change the site's current public-use designation, which limits it to open space. The property was marked as public use in 1991 when Safety Harbor adopted its downtown redevelopment plan.

The restaurant would have been the first phase of a downtown development that could include a mixed office, retail and residential project on land that Loick owns on the west side of Bayshore Boulevard, across from the site of the proposed restaurant.

Loick and Bowman did not speak Tuesday. Instead, their architects and consultants put on a presentation.

Jim Stutzman, a land planning consultant for the Loick partnership, described the proposed development as "a quality seafood restaurant" with a marine theme. Stutzman said such a restaurant would accentuate the area.

"This is a major gateway to downtown," Stutzman said. "With development on this site . . . we could create a very aesthetically pleasing gateway."

But Mayor Kent Runnells wondered why the developers couldn't build on properly zoned property on the other side of Bayshore Boulevard.

"Would it not be functional to build a restaurant across the street?" Runnells asked. "You will still have a panoramic view of the water."

Stutzman said doing that would limit the scope of restaurants that would be willing to build there.

"A lot of the quality restaurants aren't going to be across the street from the water," Stutzman said.

Loick had launched a public relations campaign for the restaurant idea, placing an elaborate ad in the weekly Tropical Breeze newspaper with an open letter. The ad contained a picture of the land as it currently looks and a now-famous rendering of what it would look like with the restaurant there.

The rendering looked like a mansion with columns, balconies and arched windows.

"Many of us old-timers yearn for the "old Florida' with dirt roads, a fraction of today's traffic and the "gone fishing' signs posted on doors of many little businesses in mid-summer," Loick wrote. "Yet, change does not mean something bad."

Runnells said Loick's ad left out a picture of what the land would look like should the city buy the property and improve it.

Residents also weren't swayed. As before, they said the restaurant would block the view and create traffic problems.

"I really have a lot of problems with this specific plan," said resident Sandy Huff, who ran for a commission seat earlier this year. "What is actually going to be there is a big, massive thing that's going to cut off the view. We don't need another Jesse's Landing."

Bob Diaz, a local builder who spoke on behalf of several residents, said Loick's ad had only further alienated Safety Harbor residents.

"We want to see responsible, thoughtful development in our communities," Diaz said. "The last thing the residents of Safety Harbor want is critical mass."

The city still hopes to purchase Loick's bayside property. Vice mayor Dan Pohto said buying Loick's property at its assessed value of $234,000 would cost each citizen of Safety Harbor about $15.

"Is $15 for each man and woman in this city worth it?" Pohto asked.

The crowd cheered in the affirmative.