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Building moratorium proposal draws fire

City officials soon will consider the exceptional step of imposing a building moratorium to curb unanticipated condominium growth in one section of the beach.

Members of the development community have already lined up against the idea. Residents in the neighborhood have hired a prominent land use attorney to fight the proposal. And at least three City Council members have expressed some hesitation.

The proposed construction ban would prohibit new condominium development in an area north of the roundabout, from Rockaway to Somerset streets, and last until November.

Currently planned projects would not be affected, city officials say, but applications for new condominium developments would not be accepted until this fall if the moratorium is adopted by the City Council next month.

Planners say they need until November to study and clarify the city's beach design guidelines for the area, which express a preference for single family townhome development but don't explicitly ban condominiums.

Last year, seven condominium buildings were proposed for the area, at heights of up to 75 feet.

"There is increasing development pressure and we think it's going to get worse," said City Manager Bill Horne. "There are enough inconsistencies out there currently that we need a time-out."

The neighborhood in question, known as Old Florida, was designed to provide transition between high-intensity condominium towers to the south and a quiet beachfront neighborhood to the north.

Horne said medium-sized condominium complexes challenge the character envisioned in the beach guidelines.

"The moratorium isn't the big issue here. The most important part is around what should happen to the Old Florida district." he said. "This is a conversation. (A moratorium is) a tool to consider."

Members of the development community disagree.

And since the proposal surfaced in earnest last week, opposition has steadily mounted.

On Tuesday, Joseph Narkiewicz, CEO of the Tampa Bay Builders Association, questioned the sanity of City Hall, saying a moratorium should be a last resort, not launched "on a whim for no good reason."

A moratorium is often used to relieve overburdened infrastructure. If a city exceeds its sewer capacity in a neighborhood, it might prohibit further building until the capacity is increased, Narkiewicz said.

"To have a moratorium based on a plan that has yet to be completed, that has yet to be adopted, is shortsighted," he said. "The economic implications can be major."

Larry Cooper, a developer building the Residences of Windward Passage on nearby Island Estates, said the moratorium talk has dominated local discussion.

"It's going to have an impact on property values," Cooper said.

Paul Vonfeldt, a real estate agent with Mandalay Realty, said about 40 residents in the neighborhood have already joined to fight the proposed moratorium. They prefer condominiums to townhomes, he said.

The group, which has already met twice, will meet again later this week. They are circulating a letter asking for help.

They have also hired Clearwater land use attorney Ed Armstrong.

"The city has developed their opinion," Vonfeldt said. "But they're not listening to the public's opinion. We're going to fight this tooth and nail."

Armstrong said the downside of a moratorium far outweighs any potential benefit.

"It's unwarranted on the facts, extremely unfair to the property owners and sends a very negative message to the entire business community," Armstrong said. "I can't even imagine how we got to the point of debating the issue."

Horne said there is no agenda to derail property values. The city simply wants to clarify inconsistencies in its code. A moratorium would clean the slate, he said.

Council member Hoyt Hamilton, who himself owns property in the Old Florida neighborhood, said he'd be hard-pressed to support a moratorium.

Hamilton will discuss the issue with the council, but because of the conflict of interest, he will not be able to vote.

Interim council member John Doran also expressed concerns about the proposal.

"(Moratorium) is not a very popular word," Doran said. "I'm waiting to be convinced that we need to stop what is proposed to be stopped."

And interim Mayor Frank Hibbard said a moratorium sends the wrong message.

"It's potentially too bold a step," Hibbard said. "We may be killing an ant with a sledgehammer."

While the moratorium is centered around new development, one builder has decided to put a fresh face on an old building. Royal Resorts has bought two small motels on north Mandalay Avenue, and is renovating the properties.

When they open later this year, Royal North Beach and Royal Camelot will be condominium-hotels that match the art deco feel of south Miami Beach, said Larry Daudelin, a partner in the company. As most developers want shiny and big, Daudelin said there are other options.

"We saw what was going on. We see all the high-rises, people coming in, knocking things down," he said. "We think there's a way to preserve these charming pieces of history.

"Tearing down isn't always the answer."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at (727) 445-4160 or asharockmansptimes.com.

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