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SAND KEY ZONING ISSUE STILL UNRESOLVED AFTER PROTEST

300 attend a meeting to fight for a strip mall.

More than 300 Sand Key residents Tuesday packed three floors of City Hall in what they called a fight to save a small strip mall they fear may one day be razed to make way for a hotel.

But after more than five hours of testimony from roughly 40 residents, the city's Community Development Board was forced to continue the meeting to March 18 after failing to reach a majority decision.

At issue was a zoning designation for the Shoppes on Sand Key, a 3-acre strip just over a half-mile south of the Clearwater Pass Bridge. The land was previously zoned "business" but the designation expired last year.

The land owner, a Clearwater real estate group called D.A. Bennett Co., wanted it changed to "tourist," which would allow at least a 100-foot-tall hotel - something residents argued would hurt the character of the island.

Homeowners also argued they'd lose the only retail in Sand Key. It's the one place where they can get their nails done, grab a doughnut and a cup of coffee, or buy a pair of swimming goggles.

Anchored by Backwater's, a restaurant known for its steaks and seafood, the strip also includes an Italian restaurant, a men's clothing store and a bank.

Residents fear the owners will sell the land to a developer who will tear down the strip mall and build a hotel. They said it would fill the roads with traffic and decrease property values. They also noted the island already has two hotels and that Sand Key was not a destination for tourists.

Instead, the residents suggested they meet with the landowner and work out a zoning that would please both sides.

Attorney Michael Foley, who represents D.A. Bennett, said the company has no development plans at this point.

It's hard to say what will happen next.

Board chairman Nick Fritsch recused himself from the meeting because he lives on Sand Key, and member Jordan Behar was absent. So the board was left with six members, including its alternate.

Member Frank Dame made a motion to deny the owner's request to create the tourist zoning, but the vote ended in a 3-3 tie.

Board members will review the transcripts and vote again March 18. Their decision could go the following month to the City Council for another vote, which may or may not be appealed in court by either party.

Still, after a long day, some members who spearheaded the fight said they weren't disappointed.

"I actually feel it was a victory for us," said JoEllen Farnham, 53, adding that residents went "into this like it was an uphill battle."

The Sand Key resident and lawyer said she was happy the board "was willing to listen to us and seemed very sincere, so we're encouraged by that."

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