Thursday, June 21, 2007

Beach Occupiers

"Gene Valentino has hopped into bed with developers who are angling to evade the residential cap on Pensacola Beach and he wants Robertson to hold his underwear."
The ugly, dark side of Escambia County's continued political occupation of Pensacola Beach was revealed yesterday when District 2 commissioner Gene M. Valentino abruptly demanded the resignation of SRIA board member Kelly Robertson. According to PNJ reporter Derek Pivnick, if Robertson doesn't resign today Valentino has informed him he will be "automatically terminated."

Technically, that can't be right. So far as we recall, state law governing the appointment and removal of county commission-appointed members of the SRIA requires affirmative action of all commissioners. But it's certainly true that local custom allows each commissioner to name and remove "his own" appointee. It's not "automatic" though -- Valentino will have to wield the knife but his fellow commissioners will have to hand it to him. That's unlikely to bother Valentino. He knows what he wants -- total county commissioner control of Pensacola Beach.

The simple truth is that Gene Valentino has hopped into bed with developers who are angling to evade the residential cap on Pensacola Beach and he wants Robertson to hold his underwear. Robertson isn't enthusiastic about that.

What was Robertson's sin? Voting with the Santa Rosa Island Authority board majority late last week in a 5 to 1 SRIA board decision "to establish its own policies in defining what a hotel is on Pensacola Beach." It's not that this SRIA vote was anti-developer, particularly; it's that a vote in favor of the SRIA continuing to do its lawful duty of managing the beach in the public interest (as the SRIA's own attorney has advised the board it must do) is a vote against Escambia County commissioners pillaging the joint.

Valentino, being a county commissioner, couldn't abide that.

There's a subplot even more disturbing. Under the county's Comprehensive Plan, which was updated just before County Administrator Barry Evans retired a few years ago, for decades it has been stipulated that no more than 4,128 "residential units" can be built in "mixed use" and residential zones on Pensacola Beach. Over the years, thousands of builders, real estate brokers, and beach lessees invested in Pensacola Beach in no small measure because they were encouraged to rely on the implicit promises in the county's Comprehensive Plan when they built, sold, or bought residence or business leases on Pensacola Beach. A common expectation of all was that beach zoning and land use restrictions offered reasonable assurance that they wouldn't wake up some morning to find a high rise condo, or a slaughter house for that matter, going up next door.

To be sure, the maximum number of residential units on Pensacola Beach, if anything, probably is too high given increased hurricane activity and the limited number (just the one at the moment) of escape routes. Even that high number was essentially used up eight years ago when the SRIA expressly allocated all remaining residential units to the Portofino complex. The beach is full. It has reached maximum carrying capacity.

Oblivious to all of this, high rise developers have of late been seeking ways to get around the cap so they can continue building sky-high buildings. Their current strategy relies on a nonce word: 'hotel-condo.' Straight out of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet:
O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
By building what some call "condo-tels", or hotels that contain within them units large enough to be occupied over the long term as residential condo units while avoiding the root word "residence" and its variants, developers hope to keep on building and building and building until the island sinks under the collective weight of high rise cement.

Until now, the only thing standing in the way was that Barry Evans' crew -- the brightest group ever to administer Escambia County -- foresaw this dodge and engineered an amendment to the county's Comprehensive Plan ten years ago that for the first time defined "hotels" in terms of maximum square footage and specified they cannot be continuously occupied by the "owner" more than two weeks a year.

What Valentino and all the commercial builders who donated so generously to his campaign for public office want to do is eviscerate that section of the Comprehensive Plan. If they succeed it will be 'bombs away' for every area of Pensacola Beach designated as a "mixed use" building zone. That includes a great many areas that beach residents and visitors think of as residential -- because that's the way they currently look to the naked eye and, after all, the beach has maxed out on residential units, right?

Caveat emptor. With county politicians like Gene Valentino in office, no property on Pensacola Beach will be safe.

Today, Valentino published a two-page "position statement" on the condo-tel issue. It can be downloaded and read by clicking here [Word format].

While Valentino is due some credit for posting any kind of position paper that can be read by the public, the commissioner's statement on this issue is, to be generous, incoherent, fact-free, and delusional. But bleeding through all the balderdash about "the creatively talented individual" and "looking at the big picture" and "neutralizing" supposed zoning "disparities... by merging many of the zoning categories together" one theme comes through loud and clear: Valentino wants to erase all zoning and Comprehensive Plan restrictions on beach development because he thinks it will generate more revenue for county government.

That's not "looking at the big picture." That's looking like a short-sighted pig.

County commissioners have put off until next month a decision on reviewing the "condo-tel" rules adopted last week by the SRIA.

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