Saturday, April 14, 2007

'Concrete Canyons' on the Beach

"The developers are trying to water down the definition of a hotel room to allow them to build and sell condos by calling them hotels."
-- William H. Griffith, April 14, 2007
Bill Griffith, a veteran board member of the agency that governs Pensacola Beach for 14 years, has an op-ed in Saturday's PNJ. Subject: the pending effort to redefine county ordinances to permit beach "hotels" to start cross-dressing as condos.

Griffith's article is a call to action, written in a noble attempt to get the public involved. "
The voice of the beach-going public needs to be heard," he says.
There is a classic struggle afoot on Pensacola Beach -- the interests of developers against the interests of the community. So far, the developers have caught the ears of the Escambia County commissioners, and they have already won concessions.

Pensacola Beach has enjoyed a very diversified and successful development under the watchful eyes of the Santa Rosa Island Authority. The resulting mix of single-family homes, condos, churches and a school blends well with hotels, restaurants and shops to produce an enviable year-round beach community.

Key to this successful development has been the 1988 Land Use Plan, a residential building cap of 4,128 units (including condos), and a definition of a hotel room to differentiate it from a residential condo unit. William H. Griffith is a 39-year beach resident and served on the Santa Rosa Island Authority for 14 years.

Condos are attractive to developers because they can make more money, more quickly than they can building a hotel. But no more condos can be built on Pensacola Beach because of the residential building cap, which has been met with existing and planned units. So the developers are trying to water down the definition of a hotel room to allow them to build and sell condos by calling them hotels.

I think most Escambia County residents would prefer that we keep Pensacola Beach as an accessible public playground, and not a "concrete canyon" of condominiums.
Griffith undoubtedly is right. Most tourists as well as the overwhelming majority of locals would much "prefer" low-rise beach development with liberal access to the natural splendors of Pensacola Beach. Few want to see us imitate "
Miami where almost every new hotel during the past 5 years have been built in this manner as a condo-hotel," as "Anonymous" commented at the end of a post here last week. (From internal evidence, we'd hazard the guess that Anonymous' real name is "Anonymous Developer.")

But it's also true that few locals in these parts have sufficient courage or commitment to speak out or work against predatory developer plans. We're not sure why. Maybe they've spent too many decades under the yoke of unresponsive county government. Maybe it's a corollary consequence of Florida's notoriously poor educational system.

Tourists are even less likely to object; they rarely learn about rapacious development until the deed is done, and in any event have no vote in the matter -- except with their wallets after the fact.

In the end, probably the only effective way to preserve some semblance of a Pensacola Beach that doesn't look like Miami is if the business community -- restaurateurs shop owners, condo associations, and other tourist-dependent entities -- band together to preserve the best of Pensacola Beach. To do that, they'll have to pay attention to the details, and at the moment the detail that's most important, paradoxically, is deceptively diminutive. As Griffith says:
I believe a definition of a hotel which allows flexibility for developers, but preserves the true nature of a hotel, is needed to keep Pensacola Beach the diverse, healthy beach community that is it.
If you agree, email Grover Robinson, commissioner for District 4 which includes Pensacola Beach. Or visit his web page to telephone or write.


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