Redeveloped Schooner Resort gets zoning approval after hours of testimony

The proposed nine-story, 56-room hotel and resort is planned to replace the current 42-room Schooner Hotel.
A rendering of the proposed Schooner Resort, a nine-story, 56-room hotel planned along Gulf Boulevard on the site of the current Schooner hotel.
A rendering of the proposed Schooner Resort, a nine-story, 56-room hotel planned along Gulf Boulevard on the site of the current Schooner hotel. [ City of Madeira Beach ]
Published July 15, 2021

MADEIRA BEACH — The redeveloped Schooner Resort is one major hurdle closer to construction after an hours-long, quasi-judicial hearing at Wednesday’s board of commissioners meeting that led to a vote permitting zoning changes to accommodate the plans.

“If we’re lucky, maybe early next year we’ll break ground,” said Kevin Bowden, one of the three developers, in a brief interview.

Proposed as a nine-story, 56-room hotel with a second-floor restaurant and rooftop bar, the new resort is set to be the tallest hotel in Madeira Beach’s two-mile strip of beachfront. It will stand on a stretch of four- and five-story condos on the west side of Gulf Boulevard that looks out over the beach, where the current 42-room Schooner Hotel stands. Across the street, the developers are planning additional parking and 6,000 square feet of retail space as part of the plan.

The developers postponed a vote on the development agreement until the next meeting on Aug. 11 on advice from their counsel. If passed, they expect it to take six months to finish building plans with the city’s building department. Then they’ll apply for permits from various state departments, including the Florida Department of Transportation.

“This is not necessarily the final design,” said Shane Costello, an attorney representing the developers. “And a (Planning Department) rezoning approval doesn’t mean this has to be locked in. This can continue to be tweaked during the design process.”

The board of commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the zoning agreement. Commissioner David Hutson was the dissenting vote.

The meeting marked at least the seventh time developers have brought the long-delayed plan in front of city officials. Plans have been scratched, revised, sent back and delayed due to the pandemic and dissension from residents worried that the plan will change the small beach city’s character.

Dozens of residents showed up to the Wednesday meeting in bright neon green “Vote Yes on Schooner” shirts with “I <3 Madeira Beach” on the back. Several said they were excited for fresh development to replace a blighted stretch of Gulf Boulevard.

Community Development Director Linda Portal and an attorney representing the developers presented why they believed the new resort is a good fit for the city. Two residents living near the site claimed “affected party” status to speak against the project — one of them hired an attorney to do so.

For months, the redevelopment plan has generated pushback from some residents. On Monday, resident Thresa Nelson sent an email to City Manager Bob Daniels and Portal with a 184-signature petition urging the city not to approve the development until their list of concerns were met.

Their concerns: the building’s height is not compliant with the city’s building code; the parking plan is inadequate; the traffic assessment conducted did not account for the restaurants; and there would need to be a review of its environmental impacts, among others.

“We simply want there to be an understanding that this is not just a handful of people who share concerns about the 9-story development,” Nelson wrote in her email. Several who signed the petition attended the Wednesday meeting.

For years, those concerns have caused developers to amend their plans: The project was originally meant to split as five and three stories on either side of Gulf Boulevard. The building shape was changed from a rectangle to an L-shape. It was amended to nine stories on the west side of Gulf Boulevard with retail and parking on the east side. As of early June, the retail space on the east side would be 9,500 square feet — now it’s 6,000 square feet to accommodate more parking.

The developers - Jeff Beggins and Jim Beggins of Madeira Beach and Bowden, who also own the nearby Cambria Hotel - first proposed the redevelopment plans more than two years ago. They hosted a required neighborhood meeting in January with owners and tenants of nearby properties.

“It’s sad when people are opposed to us,” Bowden said after the vote. “But I’m really happy the commission saw it our way.”

At the Wednesday meeting, Portal went through a presentation listing why the Planning Board recommended the commission permit the new building’s zoning request: It’s consistent with the city’s planning and zoning requirements, meets the provisions for enough parking to accommodate the added space and furthers the city’s comprehensive building plan.

The design enhancements also allow it to be taller than several surrounding buildings, per her presentation, and the building will serve the public interest.

Then Timothy Weber - an attorney representing one of the affected parties - questioned Portal for more than 20 minutes, arguing that the plans were inadequate and not comprehensive enough to pass.

“So you want the board to find that it’s compliant tonight, and just put a condition on it that somebody else will determine whether it’s compliant later?” he said.

Building materials aren’t required by the commission, Portal said, but Weber then pushed her on other aspects: lighting fixtures, a more comprehensive traffic plan, tree space, further proof that it will meet the state’s land development requirements. Without specific answers to those questions, he argued, the plan was not comprehensive enough to move forward. But much of what he wanted to confirm, Portal said, would come in the site planning criteria, not the zoning approval process.

“Was there a plan for signage for this building, submitted at this phase in the process?” Weber asked.

“At this point they have agreed to meet the sign code as it is written,” said Portal.

“So that’s another thing that’s going to be decided later?” asked Weber.

“Yeah, typically that’s decided at some point in the (next phase),” Portal said.

After hours of testimony, public comments and presentations, the board briefly discussed what they had heard. Commissioner Nancy Hodges liked the idea but was still concerned about parking. Hutson was worried about the density the resort will bring to the city.

Vice Mayor Helen “Happy” Price said many of the underlying questions will be answered as the full building ideas are brought before the planning commission.

Mayor John Hendricks said they had to trust their building department staff — and the new resort will be an improvement from the dilapidated hotel currently sitting on the site.

“I can’t imagine us sitting up here tonight and deciding what kind of trees are going to go in,” he said. “Or what kind of flooring they’re going to put in. Or light fixtures they’re going to put in.”

Nearly everybody filed out of the commission chambers after the vote, as the commission moved on to the next agenda item.