Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thanksgiving Beach Read


For your Thanksgiving weekend reading pleasure we aren't recommending a pot-boiling beach book, but the verbatim transcript of the October 3, 2005 meeting of the "SRIA Committee to Redefine Pensacola Beach."

The meeting took place six weeks ago but the transcript (in Adobe Acrobat's pdf format) was not posted on the Santa Rosa Island Authority web site until November 9.

It's an interesting read for anyone who would like to eavesdrop on Pensacola Beach developers delicately dancing around each other's economic self-interests. Not exactly Agatha Christy material; more like Sir Julian Huxley, who once described the practice of the praying mantis to devour her mate after sex as both "attractive" and "aesthetically... repulsive."

The central points of committee discussion were (1) Whether the residential cap on Pensacola Beach should be raised; and (2) Is it desirable to lighten county land use restrictions for beach hotels?

Presently, no more than 4,128 residential units -- single family homes or condo units -- are allowed on Pensacola Beach. For hotel units there is no limit. Nomenclature can be slippery, however, especially when a "hotel" can be financed like a "condo" by selling individual rooms, as was the case with the Clarion Suites Resort and may be at least partly the case with Julian MacQueen's new structure, now going up near the Hilton Garden Inn.

To prevent "hotels" from transmogrifying into residential "condo" units, Escambia County regulations, adopted under the enlightened leadership of retired county administrator Barry R. Evans, stipulate that at least 90 percent of all new hotel rooms must be no larger than 500 sq. feet; any rooms that may be owned individually cannot be occupied by the owner more than two weeks a year; and room amenities cannot be much more elaborate than your average mini-bar 'fridge.

Not surprisingly, in the clinches of committee comments, it's plain to see that hotel developers wanted to blur the difference between residential condos and hotels by lifting the county restrictions while developers who dominate the residential condominium market don't. A few excerpts:
Robert Rinke (condo developer): "So I wouldn't be in favor of that [lifting hotel regulations], because I think that would change -- you'd have a lot larger buiildngs in the core, they would turn into condos, and I think you would lose a a substantial amount of tourism." (pp. 7-8)

* * *
"I just think they need to -- I've had some people tell me we should change that and leave it at 500 square feet and waive the two-week stay, but put in there that you cannot put in anything but the small hotel refrigerators and microwaves to make sure they don't creep into kitchens and lose our hotel." (p. 100)

Joseph Endry (hotel developer): "... you see people going to suites because tht's what people want." (p.11)

* * *
[The current 2-week residence rule is] "unenforceable. I mean, how would the county ever know if an owner at the Clarion uses the unit more than two weeks? There's no way to tell." (p. 12)

* * * "So the idea is to allow a longer period of time, you know, whether it's 30 days or whatever it might be, and allow the size of the rooms on average bigger, bit not 2,000 square feet. * * * A hotel developer is not going to build 1,200 and 1,300 square foot because they're not going to do it because they're too expensive."
For all of the thinly-camouflaged self interests flying around, though, it's a tribute to everyone on the committee that in the end they did not recommend devouring the beach like some sated mantis. Instead, the committee sent to the Santa Rosa Island Authority what seems, on balance, to be a sensible series of recommendations.

The two-page committee report distributed at the most recent SRIA meeting concludes with this succinct summary:
Pensacola Beach currently has a residential building cap of 4,128 units. If a policy of "concurrency" were to be adopted (as was recently recommended for Perdido Key), up to an additional 2,100 additional residential units could be built. The Committee recommends that that building cap be retained. This is an arbitrary limit, and might be changed as a result of the upcoming planning process, but it has served to limit the rampant growth that has occurred in other Gulf Coast communities Pensacola Beach is all the better for it.

Several residential developments have been developed as low density when the existing zoning would have allowed for more residential units. These include Deluna Point, Tristan Villas, Lafitte Cove II, La Caribe, Lakeside Townhouses, Seashore Village, and Santa Rosa Villas Estates. The Committee recommends that the zoning for these parcels be changed to reflect the lower density development and to be consistent with the leases. (These sites represent about half of the 2,100 unit difference between the current building cap and "concurrency" limits.)

Hotel development is not limited by the residential building cap, only by current zoning and by the economics of the hotel industry. The Committee discussed the Clarion request for a zoning variance and could not reach a consensus recommendation for the SRIA. With respect to other hotel sites, the Committee recommends that the SRIA not grant blanket changes in zoning (e.g. from medium density to high density) for hotel sites. However, the Committee recommends that the SRIA give consideration to requests for "special exemptions" to increase the number of units allowed to the maximum permissible within the current zoning classification (e.g. up to 20 units per acre for medium and up to 50 units per acre for high density sites). If variances are granted to change density limits or to change zoning of a parcel, the Committee recommends that impact fees be assessed to the leasehold developer.

The committee also recommends that the SRIA encourage the development of hotels with substantial convention/meeting facilities. These hotels attract business outside of the busy summer months and will help sustain a better year-around economic base for all island businesses.
As of yesterday, SRIA sources say, the recommendation has been received but no immediate action is scheduled.

That's not a surprise. Talk about encouraging the construction of more hotels seems a little other-worldly at the moment. Fourteen months after Hurricane Ivan, only half of the 12 existing hotels on Pensacola Beach have managed to become at least partly habitable.

In the longer term, weather permitting, it seems clear that powerful economic forces are aiming to emphasize hotel development on Pensacola Beach. As long as it's confined to the core commercial area, this trend probably will not meet with much resistance from residents or visitors who value the "quaintness" of Pensacola Beach.

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