TAMPA — For more than a year, the Tampa Yacht & Country Club and some of its neighbors have skirmished over the club's efforts to revisit where and when it can serve alcohol on its bayfront property.
All the big players on both sides have lawyers, and City Hall has received a couple of thousand letters since June 2015. The argument has also unfolded on Facebook and no fewer than three competing websites.
Finally, on Thursday, Sept. 22, the controversy is scheduled to get a public hearing in front of the Tampa City Council.
The yacht club says it's merely trying to update its zoning to be consistent with its practices and traditions for the past 112 years, as well as plan for an expansion of its kitchen and entryway.
From private parties to the milk-and-bourbon punch served to Gasparilla pirates every year, alcohol has been a part of club life since it was founded near the southern end of Bayshore Boulevard in 1904. But the property wasn't in city limits then, and records of what's been approved over the years since are fragmentary, at best.
"The club is trying to catch up with the times," said Grace Yang, a Tampa attorney representing the club on the rezoning. "They've been operating as a non-conforming use in this residential area for all this time. This (rezoning) will specifically say, we are agreeing, once and for all, to limit the use" of the property "to a nonprofit, private recreational club for members and guests of members."
But opponents contend the club's rezoning and alcoholic beverage applications could open the door to a transformation of the club into something much bigger.
"Totally incompatible," said Tampa attorney Gordon Schiff, representing former Lykes Bros. chairman Tom Rankin, who lives just south of the site and has complained about noise there. Rankin, ironically, is a club member.
"An expansive indoor-outdoor commercial event center has no place in this quiet tree-lined neighborhood," Schiff said.
To get some clarity and set the stage to expand the club's kitchen and dining areas and put in a bar on the pool deck, the club filed for city alcohol beverage approval to allow drinks both inside and outside the club. The club also is seeking city approval for a site plan to govern future changes to buildings on its 13.3 acres — 18.7 acres including the marina.
That application was filed in April, and it didn't take long for neighbors to raise concerns: Could the club put up a parking garage? Build apartments? Get rid of its stables and riding paddock? Or cut down those lovely old oaks along Interbay Boulevard?
No, no, no and no, say representatives for the club.
The yacht club isn't looking to make big changes, they say, or to expand its membership base or open its clubhouse to commercial activity.
"It's not a public events center," said Rich Mullins, a public relations consultant for the club. The club will remain nonprofit. It will not be open to the public. Only members will be able to host or sponsor events. Events cannot be advertised. Guests won't get in without an invitation.
Nor does the club plan to put in a sidewalk that would necessitate cutting down oaks along Interbay, attorney David Smith said. One grand oak just north the clubhouse was thought to be preservable, but is getting a second look and is the subject of more consultation with the city after a bee infestation indicated it may be weakened by rot.
"We are not going to remove a healthy grand tree," Smith said.
In an effort to make sure the surrounding neighborhood knows of its plans, the club sent letters to property owners within 2,000 feet of the property, not just within the required 250 feet.
And the club says it would agree to these conditions of approval:
• No garage or structured parking of any kind.
• No residential development.
• The horse barn and paddock will remain in place. To remove them, the club would have to file another application and go through another public hearing to get city approval.
• No outdoor sales of alcohol after midnight Monday through Thursday, 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, or 10:30 p.m. Sunday. These hours wouldn't apply to Gasparilla events, New Year's Eve and a maximum of two other temporary events a year.
Currently, Yang said, the club has no restrictions on hours for sale or consumption.
"This is to try to work with the neighbors, especially the neighbors to the south," she said. The club also has made bands and DJs point their speakers away from neighbors, put limits on noise, begun using a decibel meter to measure noise during parties, and shut down at least one event that exceeded the limits after a warning. Club members sponsoring noisy events can be fined up to $1,000.
Moreover, the club is proposing a buffer of 160 feet on the west side of its property, where the tennis courts and stables are. Inside that buffer, there would be no alcohol sold or consumed. A similar buffer would prevent any vertical construction within 75 feet of the western property line.
On the clubhouse side of Interbay, the buffer zone on alcohol consumption would be 75 feet on most of the south side of the property, where Rankin, the plan opponent, lives. Not included in that buffer is the children's playground.
"We wanted to make sure that a club member who has a glass of wine or a cocktail is able to walk over to the playground and say, 'Hey, is everything okay?' " Yang said.
Contact Richard Danielson at email@example.com and (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times