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Safety Harbor considers restricting building heights

Safety Harbor city commissioners have begun talking about temporarily limiting building heights in two parts of downtown.

The idea grew out of several commissioners' concern that the construction of new tall buildings could ruin the downtown's quaint, old-fashioned feel.

Interim Mayor Andy Steingold said he wants to preserve "what we have in Safety Harbor,'' and "height is the No. 1 issue.''

Commissioners took no vote during a work session Monday night, but after a sometimes-heated discussion, they came to a consensus to consider reducing allowable building heights from:

- 35 to 25 feet in residential neighborhoods between Second Street N and Fourth Street N and Philippe Parkway and Ninth Avenue.

- Three stories to two in the retail area along Main Street east of Third Avenue.

If adopted, the reduction would be in effect for nine months. City Attorney Alan Zimmet recommended putting a nine-month limit on the building-height moratorium to limit the chances of the city being sued over the move.

Proponents of reducing building heights downtown said it would prevent Safety Harbor from becoming something that looks like Clearwater Beach.

Developers said reducing building heights would be the kiss of death for real estate and will reduce property values.

"These (properties) are people's nest eggs,'' said Rick Zacchigna, president of Saxony Homes in Clearwater. "If they change the zoning, it would negatively impact a real estate market that has already decreased. It sends a wrong message to developers. They'll stay away.''

Zacchigna, who has developed four projects in Safety Harbor and is currently building an estate home, said taking such a hard line will keep all developers at bay and discourage good projects and encourage blight.

But City Commissioner Kathleen Earle sees it differently.

"There is a trend to take up as much volume as possible" on a lot, she said, perhaps referring to projects such as Harbour Pointe. "This is clearly a problem if we want to retain the integrity of this town.''

Commissioner Martha MacReynolds, the board's newest member, disagreed, saying "what we require of buildings now are not what our parents required when I was growing up. They (homeowners) want more room.''

She said city officials should not expect residents to live like people did decades ago, in small bungalows.

Zacchigna said she is absolutely correct.

"People today want 10-foot ceilings and higher even, 12 feet,'' he said. "Ten or 15 years ago it was okay to have lower ceilings.''

And as far as Main Street, MacReynolds reminded the commission that most of the cities of Europe are three stories or more and very dense.

"It creates a healthy downtown,'' she said.

The proposed changes came in the course of a discussion about the future of the city's community redevelopment district. City officials are scheduled to discuss the changes further at meetings on Dec. 13 and 19.

Adopted in 1992, the Community Redevelopment Agency plan originally covered 125 acres in the downtown core.

In February, commissioners approved a plan to expand that area by 50 acres. The boundaries are now 11th Avenue to Old Tampa Bay, and from Third Avenue N to Third Avenue S.

The new demarcations include a 11/2-acre swath that extends from the new Harbour Pointe development to the Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History.

The expanded CRA boundaries were submitted to Pinellas County in March, and is approaching the conclusion of the county's review process, according to Ron Rinzivillo, Safety Harbor's associate planner.

If the City Commission, sitting as a community redevelopment agency, decides to pull the expanded plan from the county's review process, the commission can hold public hearings and vote on whether to limit building heights.

On Tuesday, Steingold said the city needs to give careful consideration to what those in downtown have to say before making any moves.

"I think we need to listen to the people who actually reside in areas north of Main Street,'' Steingold said. "I'm not so sure minimizing height is what we're trying to do. We're trying to maintain the quaintness of the city. ... I want more architectural standards, old Florida ... Mediterranean, some kind of thread throughout the city.''

Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com.

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