CLEARWATER - Thursday night's Council meeting was to have been the second and final approval for the City's termination of non-conformity ordinance, but a mistake in advertising has delayed the hearing until July 21. The ordinance was proposed by the City's planning department to stem the tide of hotel conversions to residential condominiums.
Under the terms of Clearwater's existing land development code, buildings in a tourist zone that exceed a density of 40 hotel rooms or 30 residential units per acre are classified as "non-conforming", meaning that those properties can not be reconstructed with their existing density. But the code also has a termination provision, allowing a property to be redeveloped with its existing density if it complies with all other provisions of the code.
While the termination provision of Clearwater's code eliminated a disincentive for redevelopment, it produced unintended results; developers began buying the aging hotel/motel stock on Clearwater Beach, replacing overnight accommodations with residential condominiums. Hotel room density, including non-conforming units, was converted into condo units at a ratio of 3 condo's for every 4 hotel rooms as permitted by code. A hypothetical 40-unit motel on 1/2 acre could be redeveloped into a 30-unit residential condominium under existing rules.
It is that conversion privilege for non-conforming hotel density that has been placed under attack by the proposed code revision. Under the proposed new rules, that hypothetical 40-unit motel on 1/2 acre could still be converted to a condo, but only 15 residential units would be allowed, just 1/2 the number of units permitted by the current code.
The Council was divided over the termination ordinance during their June 2 meeting, approving it by a margin of 3-2 with Mayor Hibbard and Councilmembers Doran and Jonson in favor. Jonson described the termination provision of the existing land development code as an "oops", and said "we want to correct the oops before all the horses leave the barn."
How many horses have left the barn? A study of hotels by the City's Economic Development department estimated the loss of Clearwater Beach hotel rooms at 400-500 units. Were it not for Clearwater's Beach by Design 600-unit bonus pool, the loss of hotel rooms would exceed 1,000. Those bonus pool units were assigned to the planned Sand Pearl, Clearwater Beach Hyatt and Patel hotel properties.
Councilmember Hamilton was passionate in his opposition to the ordinance. "The people who are going to be hurt by this ordinance are the small property owners that have owned property out there for 20, 30, 40 years and have put sweat equity into this," he said, "The big guys have come in, done their deals, sold their units and they're gone. The people who are left (small motel owners) haven't had that opportunity." "I'm here standing up for the little guy on this one. I can not support this ordinance," Hamilton said.
Councilmember Petersen said that she initially supported the ordinance, seeing it as a correction of an "oops". "But my ultimate decision is coming down to my feeling of fairness," she said, "There have been quite a few people who have benefited a lot from this "oops", and the unintended consequence is that we are going to hurt some of the smaller property owners."
The new rules would have no effect on already approved development plans. Nor would they apply to applications submitted by July 1, and deemed "sufficient" by Clearwater's planning department during their August 4 Development Review Committee meeting.
The July 1 deadline concerned Petersen, who said, "I'm afraid there's going to be a rush to submit an application... We're going to really force them to convert to condo."
Petersen's fear was well founded. Earlier this week Ed Hooper, a land development consultant, said that he is helping 8 beach hotel/motel owners prepare applications for submittal before the July 1 deadline, those applications representing the conversion of over 300 existing hotel rooms to condos.
The City Council will be in an unusual position on July 21; they will be asked to approve a change in the City's land development code after the deadline for applications under the old rule has already passed. At that time, the Council will have full knowledge of the applications submitted by the July 1 deadline, whose number could be large enough to render the ordinance meaningless.
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