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Beach condominium plan attracts polite scrutiny

The developers who want to replace the Tides Hotel and Bath Club with high-rise condominiums made their first sales pitch Thursday before an overflow crowd at Town Hall.

The audience of more than 60 people was largely skeptical. But those in charge of the meeting said it went more smoothly than expected and could bode well for the proposed $60-million project.

"I thought the residents would come armed," said Brian E. Johnson, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Board.

The developers, too, said they were pleased.

Edward R. Oelschlaeger, president of EcoGroup Inc. in Tampa, said that his company would submit a formal application within 30 days and that if town officials approve it, construction could begin by spring 1996.

Residents had all sorts of questions.

The proposal calls for 244 units, which is 29 more than allowed under the town's density rules. They would sell for $185,000 to $300,000 each. The plan also calls for four 135-foot-tall buildings, which would be more than twice as high as the town's 60-foot limit.

"Will our fire department be able to accommodate buildings this height?" asked Joanne Templeton, an opponent.

Fire officials said that the answer was probably yes, but that more detailed plans would be needed before they could give their blessing.

Rex Phelps, who lives near the proposed site, described the condos as a "marvelous" plan, but he wanted to know if EcoGroup was financially viable and worthy of the town's trust.

"I don't know who they are," he said.

EcoGroup said it has built large projects in the Naples area and on Sanibel Island and is well qualified to undertake a similar task in North Redington Beach.

Others asked about possible traffic jams and sewer-system problems. They also asked whether the town would set a precedent for other developers by allowing the extra-tall buildings.

The project is of intense interest to the town's 1,200 people.

The Tides resort is a nearly 60-year-old landmark that once attracted stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. Its Bath Club, with a pool, ballroom and dinner theater, remains a local fixture. But the entire operation is generally considered past its prime, and its owners have been trying to sell it.

EcoGroup is under contract to buy it. Oelschlaeger said closing is scheduled for August.

Most of the town's planning board meetings attract only a handful of people. On Thursday all the chairs were filled, and the crowd spilled into the back of the room and onto the patio outside.

Still, the mood was more of curiosity and polite skepticism than of hostility or outright opposition.

In an informal vote near the beginning, 22 residents said they were against the project and 14 were in favor.

But supporters were just as vocal as opponents when given a chance to speak.

Ted Sonnenschein, owner of the Wine Cellar restaurant on Gulf Boulevard, said the hotel and Bath Club are approaching the status of eyesores.

"The way it looks today, it's very bad for our town," he said in arguing for EcoGroup's project.

Frank Massaro, a dentist who used to belong to the Bath Club, acknowledged the town would lose a landmark. But he said development was inevitable.

EcoGroup seems "like a real solid group, and I don't want to chase them off," he said. "I think they're willing to work with this community."

No action was taken.

The board will wait for a formal application from EcoGroup before taking up the subject again, town officials said.