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In Madeira Beach, a land use glitch poses a quiet threat to many properties

The city’s development rules are out of synch with the county’s, and that could be a problem.
The retail center at 12901 Village Blvd. in Madeira Beach is among the buildings at John’s Pass Village that do not comply with Pinellas County density rules.
The retail center at 12901 Village Blvd. in Madeira Beach is among the buildings at John’s Pass Village that do not comply with Pinellas County density rules. [ MENGSHIN LIN | Times ]
Published Jun. 14
Updated Jun. 14

MADEIRA BEACH — Village Boulevard may look like a typical beach town strip of surf and trinket shops in one- and two-story buildings.

But like many of the developments along Gulf Boulevard and into Johns Pass Village, the main hubs of this two-mile-long city, they are potentially threatened by a bureaucratic glitch that has quietly existed for years.

In 2008, Madeira Beach changed its comprehensive plan to allow more square footage of development per property than what the county permits for the commercial areas.

Forward Pinellas, the county’s planning organization, first alerted city officials 13 years ago that the change was out of compliance, records show. Years passed, no action was taken and the discrepancy remains. Now Madeira Beach is pushing to rectify the issue, but not by bringing down its density rules to match the county’s limits.

The city plans to request that the county allow projects in its main commercial areas to have projects with even more square footage packed into the small parcels of land that line the Pinellas coast like puzzle pieces.

If the county doesn’t agree, the implications are real-world, reaching far beyond the bureaucratic details of urban planning. Should a catastrophe like a fire or hurricane bring major damage to Madeira Beach, the county’s rules would prevail during reconstruction.

More than a third of properties along Gulf Boulevard and in Johns Pass Village would not be allowed to be rebuilt to what they look like today, according to Alan Steinbeck, a consultant the city is using to address the issue.

“We have to have regulations that allow for new investment, revitalization, reuse of property so we don’t want regulations that are going to stop that,” he said at a workshop the city held last week. “Right now there’s some risk of that happening the way things are.”

The issue centers on a key measurement that planners and developers use to decide how much building mass a piece of land can accommodate.

The county has always allowed a “floor area ratio” of no more than 0.55 in areas where land is designated as commercial use. Thresholds created by cities in their own comprehensive plans may be lower but not higher than county rules.

Records show Madeira Beach officials changed the city’s comprehensive plan in 2008, raising the city’s ratio for commercial uses to 1.2.. That translates to a one-story building covering an entire parcel or a two-story building covering half of a property, for example. Now city officials are asking the county to raise limits in Madeira’s commercial areas to a ratio of 3, more than five times the intensity currently allowed.

Madeira Beach Community Development Director Linda Portal said the extra floor area ratio is needed because there are many properties on Gulf Boulevard and John’s Pass Village that are more dense than what the ratio of 1.2 allows.

Many of these were built decades ago, long before countywide planning rules were implemented in the 1992. But until 2008, the city’s comprehensive plan rules for development matched the Countywide Plan.

Increasing the limits on the county map would bring these properties into compliance, but Portal said that doesn’t mean the city will run away with future development. She said Madeira Beach can create less intense city zoning regulations to go over this county land use, which would dictate the height, style and type of development.

“I don’t think anybody would like to propose, at least openly, that they would want someone to come in and put a massive development on top of where we have Village Boulevard now,” Portal said at last week’s community meeting. “That’s very important to our identity. It’s important to the people who come here that the ambiance and that type of development is here.”

The city is proposing two ways to accomplish this.

The county could categorize John’s Pass Village and Gulf Boulevard as an “activity center.” That’s a designation already granted to the western end of Madeira Beach around 150th Avenue that includes more intense commercial uses like Madeira Beach Town Center and the city marina.

Another option is to designate John’s Pass Village as an activity center and make Gulf Boulevard a “multimodal corridor,” a category focused on mixed-use development designed to facilitate a variety of modes of transit.

Officials from Madeira Beach and Forward Pinellas agree the priority is to resolve this conflict. But there is clear disagreement over the root of the problem.

At the June 5 workshop city officials called to inform property owners, Portal and Steinbeck repeated that Forward Pinellas created the discrepancy around 2015 by lowering the floor area ratio allowed for commercial uses from 1.2 to 0.55.

Forward Pinellas Principal Planner Linda Fisher provided records to the Tampa Bay Times showing the county’s floor area ratio for commercial areas has always been 0.55. In 2015, the county changed the name of this land use, from “commercial general” to “retail & services,” but the floor area ratio stayed at 0.55.

Fisher also provided records showing that in 2008, Madeira Beach officials, none of whom are still with the local government, raised the city’s floor area ratio limit for commercial uses from 0.55 to 1.2 in conflict with the county rules.

She said she is not aware of any other municipality in Pinellas County dealing with a discrepancy between city and county rules.

No matter what caused the problem, the risk facing property owners who would not be able to build back their properties tomorrow if a disaster struck is real.

David Polito’s building at 12951 Village Blvd is leased to Overhead Surf Shop, one of many storefronts along this strip that are a core economic driver for the city. It was built in 1957 and has a 0.7 floor area ratio, meaning it was already out of compliance when the Countywide Plan was created in 1992 with a 0.55 commercial limit.

But he didn’t know until this week that the city had never rectified the noncompliance issues through its planning processes.

“It concerns me for sure,” Polito said. “It’s something we’ve never dealt with.”