When the Sandpearl Resort opened in 2007 with 253 rooms, almost twice as many as had been allowed on that sliver of Clearwater Beach, the owners had agreed to a compromise for public safety.
In exchange for putting more people in the vulnerable coastal storm area, the city requires the resort to evacuate guests any time the National Weather Service issues a hurricane watch for Pinellas County, even if there is no countywide evacuation order underway.
The logic behind the rule, adopted in 2001, is that getting tourists out early would make it easier for residents to evacuate later if it came to that, according to Clearwater planning director Gina Clayton.
In 2007, Pinellas followed Clearwater’s lead and adopted the requirement in its countywide plan as more hotels were built with extra units per acre.
But it appears the rule is being ignored.
At least 10 hotels on Clearwater Beach and one in Dunedin, totaling 1,238 units, should have ordered guests to leave during hurricane watches issued during hurricanes Elsa in July and Eta in November, even though the county never issued evacuation orders for those storms.
But none did, and it’s not clear hotels have honored this agreement over the years, according to city, county and hotel officials interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times.
”Right now, because we haven’t had a bad storm hit, the consequence of not following this rule is not known, is it?” said Ken Weiss, a Treasure Island attorney who has challenged developments in beach cities. “The whole purpose of this is they entered into an agreement in order to get higher densities, and now they got it and are putting those people and everybody else at risk.”
Since 2007, the National Weather Service has issued hurricane watches for Pinellas County four times, triggered when a tropical cyclone with winds of at least 74 miles per hour poses a possible threat, according to meteorologist Austen Flannery.
It appears Hurricane Irma in 2017 was the only time the hotels evacuated, and only because Pinellas County issued an evacuation order for two zones, including the beaches. The hotels granted higher densities should have evacuated guests on their own during all four hurricane watches, according to the Clearwater and countywide plan rules.
Eric Waltz, the general manager of Sandpearl for 11 years, said he was not aware of the evacuation requirement for hurricane watches and looks to local government for direction during hurricanes. He questioned the logic in evacuating guests for storms that are not expected to have major impacts, like Hurricane Elsa, which triggered a hurricane watch on July 6 but passed through Tampa Bay as a downgraded tropical storm.
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“We were about 80 percent (full) during Elsa and we would have had to relocate those guests and that puts a bigger burden on the area than just securing them where they are,” Waltz said.
County officials have not run models to confirm how evacuating guests in all high-density hotels early in a storm event would impact Pinellas-wide evacuation times. But if two people are averaged per room in the affected hotels at full-capacity, roughly 2,476 guests should be leaving any time the National Weather Service issues a hurricane watch for Pinellas County.
“It’s an obligation in their development agreements they abide,” said Clayton, the Clearwater planning director.
In 2016, Treasure Island considered creating a development area on Gulf Boulevard that would have allowed more units to pack each property, which voters later rejected. City staff asked the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council to run a computer model to show how adding up to 38 additional hotel units per acre would impact evacuation times.
Without providing figures, a staff report stated that by shutting down hotels early in an emergency, models showed clearance times would be reduced.
Pinellas County emergency operations manager Joseph Borries said staff is evaluating how to enforce the evacuation rule after the Times began inquiring about it in July. Borries was not aware of the requirement before the Times sent him the language in an email.
“Does it help that those folks would be leaving early? Absolutely, because they’d be out of the way,” Borries said. “If they left before we called an evacuation order, absolutely that would help, that’s a given.”
Clearwater first adopted its rule with its Beach By Design policy in 2001, created in part to reverse the trend of hotels converting into condos and to bring an economic boost to Clearwater Beach.
The policy created a 600-room “density pool” for luxury resorts, which developers could draw from to pack more units per acre than the land use allowed. That incentive is what lured the Sandpearl Resort, Hyatt Regency and the Wyndham Grand Resort.
A second pool for mid-sized hotels created in 2008 offered 1,385 extra rooms for hotels to pack 150 rooms per acre, up from the former 50 per-acre maximum. That pool is now depleted with seven completed hotels and another 15 in development, all of which will be subject to the evacuation rule if built.
Clayton said the requirement that these higher density hotels evacuate guests during hurricane watches “was a strong reason why” county and state officials approved the density pool at all.
Forward Pinellas, the countywide planning agency, adopted the evacuation rule in September 2007 within its requirements for hotels built with added units, according to principal planner Linda Fisher.
Seven municipalities have adopted these countywide standards, which also dictate sewer, water and design requirements for hotels. But only Clearwater and Dunedin have approved hotels with additional densities that would be subject to the evacuation requirement.
Since 2019, two hotels have been built in St. Pete Beach with additional density, and one more has been approved. But the evacuation rule for hurricane watches would not apply because the city has not adopted the countywide plan rules for these hotels. Instead, the city created its own density pool that reduced densities in some areas and allowed it to increase others, essentially moving density around throughout the city, Fisher said.
The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council recently completed a study with the state that used cell phone data from three recent storms to analyze clearance times and patterns. The final report, which has not yet been issued, will be used by the county in planning for evacuations.
The analysis, however, did not isolate guests in high-density hotels leaving the area ahead of a countywide evacuation order, executive director Sean Sullivan confirmed.
Sullivan said he was not previously aware of the evacuation rule but said hotel owners “should be held accountable” to follow conditions they agreed to in order to build higher density projects.
“I think the private sector needs to make good on the commitment that they made, nothing more nothing less, and the burden is on the property owner to comply with something they agreed to,” Sullivan said.
Steve Page, owner of the Quality Inn & Suites and Winter the Dolphin’s Beach Club on Clearwater Beach, said he remembers the rule from when he built his neighboring projects in 2016. But his hotels, granted 90 extra rooms for 181 total, evacuated only during Irma because that is the only time he received a directive from Pinellas County officials.
He said the language written into his development agreement is cloudy. It states guests should evacuate “as soon as practicable” after a watch is issued, leaving uncertainty on what should happen if storms are downgraded, like what happened with Hurricane Elsa in July.
“I don’t think it’s unfair, it’s just confusing,” Page said. “If it’s not working the way it should be working, somebody needs to help organize that.”