City leaders becoming more frustrated with development review process

CLEARWATER — A revision put in place last summer to help streamline the process for reviewing developers’ projects and to mitigate their upfront expenses is wearing thin on the city staff and council.
The issue surfaced in February after the council nixed a proposal to construct a Hampton Inn on South Gulfview Boulevard. The rejection came despite the city’s Development Review Committee and Community Development Board deeming the project to be consistent with Beach by Design guidelines and after the applicant had spent about $170,000 trying to achieve city approval.
The council objected to the size of the new hotel and the fact that some of the 90 hotel density pool units would be used to bring the Quality Inn, an existing hotel owned by the same applicant, into conformity with Beach by Design, the master plan for development on Clearwater Beach.
The objective of the process revision is to give applicants some assurance that the project meets council expectations before the developers pay planning, engineering and other fees.
The new process now starts with the city council review and two public hearings before it goes to the Development Review Committee and the Community Development Board.  In the past, the city council reviewed the development application at the end of the process.
The revision in the process applies only to applicants requesting units from the hotel density reserve, which is the primary request of developers on Clearwater Beach. The density reserve, an effort to attract more mid-price hotels to the beach, allows developers to build more rooms than otherwise would be allowed. For such a hotel to be a financial success in an area with expensive real estate, developers need as many rooms as they can get.
“Here’s the issue,” said Michael Delk, city planning and development director. “The new system has been difficult on us (city staff), and it’s not been a very pleasant one. … We’re trying to figure out the unintended consequences of the new process.”
The frustration is also out of concern that city staff and council have been approving hotel development applications but not seeing much progress on actual construction.
That sparked an adamant Delk to stand firm on enforcing a development code provision that requires the site plan to be approved within one year of the date of the city council’s approval of the development application.
Katie Cole, of the law firm Hill Ward and Henderson, spoke at last Thursday’s council meeting on behalf of clients Ted and Maria Lenart, who own the Gulf View Hotel at 625 South Gulfview Blvd. They’re seeking to replace their current property with a 103-room hotel.
Cole was displeased that city staff changed the conditions of her clients’ development agreement midstream in the application process. They’re asking for five years to complete the project’s site plan, instead of the one year the city wants to allow.
Some other applicants who went before the city staff and council this year were granted up to 10 years to submit site plans for their projects, she said.
“The decision for the one year … let me own that,” Delk said. “I actually started with six months, and frankly, my staff talked me out of it.”
City attorney Pam Aiken said that if the site plan isn’t approved until the fifth year, it could take up to four more years before the construction phase begins in the 10-year development agreement cycle.
“This is a new issue,” Aiken said.
City code states that an application for a building permit must be made within one year of the date of the development agreement’s approval. If necessary, the community development coordinator and the community development board each could grant a one-year extension for a total of two years.
Cole said achieving site plan approval within one year would be a strain on her clients, but they would consider three years as a compromise.
 “That seems reasonable to negotiate with a flag hotel, to put together financing and to deal with the business aspect of the proposal,” she said.
As a further compromise, she said her clients also removed provisions in their proposal associated with fractional share units. A community development code that hadn’t seen a lot of traction until this year involves fractional ownership units, in which several unrelated parties can share in, and mitigate ownership of, a high-value asset.
Mayor George Cretekos said, “Where we’re at is … we want hotel rooms now, not nine years from now, and that’s the dilemma.”
Council member Bill Jonson said, “I’m frustrated with this dilemma that I was a part of creating.”
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson responded, “I’m hesitant to (agree to) five years … because the next applicant is going to want five years before they start. We have to have a consistent policy. … We’ve just been too flexible. Quite frankly, I’m not sure some of the projects we approved this year will ever get built.”
Council member Doreen Hock-Dipolito, who served six years on the Community Development Board, was alone in her support for Cole’s request for more time.
“The fact that we’ve changed this process … it was 10 (years), then five, and now we’re saying one. I really believe that three years is okay for this particular applicant,” she said.
Because of those concerns and the fact that council member Jay Polglaze wasn’t present for the discussion, the board moved to postpone the matter until its Nov. 21 meeting.
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