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LEADERS FAVOR BEACH HOTELS

Because of the slow housing market, more rooms make more sense, the county says.

Pinellas County commissioners appear ready to let developers build bigger hotels on the beach.

With a slow housing market and many condominium projects at a standstill, county leaders say now is the time to create incentives that entice builders to put up hotels instead of condos.

That, they say, could help tourism by boosting overnight accommodations in a county that's lost roughly 5,000 of its 40,000 rental rooms in four years, many of them on the beach.

"It's vitally important to preserve those transient accommodations and to maintain our tourism base ... and this plan does that," Commissioner Ken Welch said Tuesday during the first of two public hearings on the proposal.

County commissioners did not vote on the plan, but could do so after a second public hearing on Aug. 21.

If approved by the county, the plan would still need the approval of each Pinellas municipality to go into effect in that particular city or town. Individual municipalities would have the option of enacting more restrictive standards.

Not everyone is happy with the proposal.

Some residents and local leaders are afraid the plan will eventually lead to a coastline crammed with tall concrete buildings that block the views and create massive traffic problems.

"Our community will become a tourist area with residents rather than a residential area with tourists," said retiree Deborah Schechner, who lives on St. Pete Beach.

Local leaders have spent more than a year working on a proposal that would overhaul Pinellas land-use plans countywide. On the beaches, the new plan would let developers - depending on the size of their site - build 50 to 150 percent more hotel rooms per acre as they can now.

Officials expect that change would make beachfront hotel development more appealing to developers. In the past, it has paid more to build condominiums than hotels. For example, on Clearwater Beach, where existing regulations allow developers to build up to 50 hotel rooms or 30 condos per acre, one condo has the same market value as about six hotel rooms.

If the county and cities sign off on the plan, then some builders might be inclined to forgo the condos for the hotels.

Under the proposal, the cap would be 100 hotel rooms per acre. The maximum would rise to 125 rooms per acre if the parcel is larger than 3 acres.

The proposal also lets developers build 75 hotel rooms on parcels smaller than an acre, though it doesn't take into consideration setback allowances and other restrictions that could reduce the total number of rooms allowed.

"The added density is absolutely critical or hotel developments won't happen," said Jeff Beggins, a partner with Indian Rocks Beach developer Gulf Beach Partners.

"Without the increase there's no rationale for building hotels here," said Beggins, who lives on Redington Beach. "This will give us the chance to build enough rooms and make them affordable."

Beggins said his company plans to build a "major hotel" along the Pinellas coastline, but won't if commissioners don't approve the density plan. He declined to say where he plans to build.

County leaders say they still need another public hearing to iron out the final details of the density plan before making a decision. One issue that hasn't been decided yet is whether the county would have oversight of a project approved in a municipality.

Mike Donila can be reached at mdonila@sptimes.com or 445-4160.

FAST FACTS

Pinellas County has eight land use categories for hotel construction and operation. On the beaches, a proposed change would increase allowable densities as much as 250 percent. The county now allows up to 50 rooms per acre in the land use category for major hotels on the coast. Here's how that could change:

Site size Hotel rooms allowed

Less than 1 acre 75 per acre*

1 to 3 acres 100 per acre

More than 3 acres 125 per acre

*Setback allowances and other restrictions could reduce allowable density on small sites.

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