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Rule bending for beach project is questioned

But county officials think they can resolve the issues and okay the $65-million Mandalay Beach Club condominium project.

Pinellas County's codes would seemingly prevent the construction of the 157-unit, $65-million Mandalay Beach Club in north Clearwater Beach.

Nevertheless, the head of the Pinellas Planning Council, which has the power to throw a wrench in the development's progress, says he has no plans to stop the project that is being touted as the key to redevelopment of a blighted area of the beach.

"I'm more concerned about the principles involved than this one project," said Dave Healey, the executive director of the county's planning agency. "I think we can resolve this through an agreement with Clearwater. . . . There is merit in what they're trying to do from a redevelopment standpoint."

To some local critics of the project, the county's response smacks of preferential treatment.

Glen Johnson, a developer who has tried to build a $27-million condominium project on Sand Key for several years, says that JMC Communities of St. Petersburg, which is building the Mandalay Club, has gotten more help than he did.

Johnson had no luck getting Clearwater to approve a height variance he needed for his project. City code inspectors said construction trailers at his site made his land a public nuisance. The city put a lien on the property, which was also dragged into a lawsuit by investors who got spooked.

"Then they go rolling out the red carpet for this other developer," Johnson complained.

From the perspective of David Bilodeau, the county's director of emergency management, it also is a poor idea for projects like the Mandalay Beach Club to increase the number of people living on Pinellas' barrier islands.

"The more people out there and the more complexities, and we're going to have a formula for disaster when it comes to a hurricane evacuation," Bilodeau said.

At issue in the Mandalay Beach Club project is that the county's land-use plan limits the 2.03-acre site of the proposed 157-unit condominium to 30 units per acre. That justifies building only 61 units.

The city is allowing developer Mike Cheezem of JMC Communities to build a property more than double that size, based on an old court settlement that allowed units to be transferred to the land. Healey says that's okay.

But much more controversially, the city is also allowing the developer to transfer the "right" to develop nine additional units to the property.

Under the city's unique development rules, the transfer gives the Mandalay Beach Club the right to jump from a 100-foot height cap to 150 feet.

Healey says that allowing such transfers of "development rights" could make the county's land plans "meaningless."

With the county's calling for 30 units per acre, county officials don't want to see nine units being transferred to a property over and above that, Healey said.

There are all kinds of reasons why units sometimes can't be developed, Healey said, from a lack of required parking to a poor economy. But that doesn't justify picking up the unused rights for additional units and building them somewhere else, especially as an afterthought a few years later, Healey said.

Healey said the county will work with the city to devise a plan that bypasses current county development rules or come up with new rules that would allow 157 units to be placed on the site.

The city could ask the county to change its land plans to allow the extra units at the Mandalay Beach Club. Both agencies also could agree to change their laws to better define _ and possibly limit _ the use of such "transfers of development rights" in the future, Healey said.

Still, the majority of city commissioners, who must give one final approval to the condo at their Thursday meeting, say they are very comfortable with the Mandalay project.

And city administrators are confident any disagreements with the county can be quickly resolved.

"We have a very new kind of code, which encourages redevelopment," City Planning Director Ralph Stone said. "It just doesn't lay down flat (on the county's code)."

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