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Board delays Rockhouse decision
Treasure Island panel awaits results of traffic, environmental reports
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Illustration courtesy of JOHN A. BODZIAK
Above is an artist’s rendition of the proposed Rockhouse Grille and Cabanas at John’s Pass in Treasure Island.
TREASURE ISLAND – The city of Treasure Island’s Planning and Zoning Board put off a decision on a request for a special exception April 21 involving the expansion of Gators Café and Saloon.

The board put off until its May meeting a decision, pending a traffic study and an environmental impact report.

Rice Family Holdings LLP is seeking to expand the business across Gulf Boulevard onto a 1.2-acre site it currently owns. The special exception is for a proposed beachfront restaurant, grill and bar called Rockhouse Grille and Cabanas within the current resort facilities high land use district.

The Rice family wants to build a two-story, 4,935-square-foot beachfront bar and sit-down restaurant, a 3 1/2-foot deep wading pool and deck, a children’s spray-ground, 17 10-foot-by-10-foot cabanas on the site, which fronts the public beach.

Following discussion of the project by residents and the board, vice chairman Christopher Sierra suggested the traffic study and environmental report.

“The Planning and Zoning Board is considering this very seriously and I’m glad they’re doing that,” said Gator’s owner Sid Rice. “As far as safety, we’re 100 percent for that. As far as the environment, we’re 100 percent for that too. We’re willing to comply with any reasonable requests.”

The bulk of the concern is over 45 planned parking spaces and automobile traffic entering and exiting the site. Architect Jack Bodziak is proposing traffic enter the facility northbound on Sunshine Lane and exit onto southbound Gulf Boulevard.

Therein lies the problem, many residents and board members believe. Some say the situation is an accident waiting to happen.

“No way this project is going to be able to handle the traffic,” said Sunshine Beach resident Nick Goldberg. “This is just a nightmare. Just stand down there and see for yourself. This is a bad deal.”

“Somebody’s going to get killed,” said board member Leonard Mewhinney. “This is an extreme traffic hazard. Initially, I thought this was great but a very difficult way to get onto Gulf Boulevard with traffic coming down a very fast bridge.”

Board member Daniel Helton suggested all parking, except handicapped parking spaces, be on the Gator’s property east of Gulf Boulevard and all pedestrian traffic being allowed only under the bridge to the Rockhouse site.

“Whatever parking they lose should be used for additional (sound) buffering,” Helton said.

Former Planning and Zoning Board chairwoman Heidi Horak said the site is very close to preservation lands where two endangered species – the brown pelican and beach mouse – exist.

“To say there will be no impact on that preservation area, I don’t believe is correct,” Horak said. “Solid waste has not been discussed. These are two areas that haven’t been accurately addressed. Perhaps a dune system or a better system for waste collection is in order.”

The project would be a major boon to the city, which stands to get an estimated $800,000 more in property tax revenue each year.

“As a resident of Treasure Island, I would hate to see a $15 million project like this go down the drain and the ensuing revenue for the city,” said Dominique Reiter, former executive director of the Treasure Island Chamber of Commerce.

Rick Woods, representing the Citizens Alliance of Sunshine Beach, said approval of the project would result in Sunshine Beach becoming another Sunset Beach.

“We’re just going to attract the same ruckus as Sunset Beach,” said Woods. “It’s wrong to take everything that’s gone on at Sunset Beach and move it up to Sunshine Beach.”

Despite all the concerns, board member Mitchell Shenkmon said the project should move forward.

“If there’s any issue, I believe the ownership will be willing to provide cures,” he said. “We should take this under consideration because this property is part of Treasure Island’s future.”

Shenkmon said alternatives to the parking/traffic issue could be valet parking or all vehicles parking across the street where 450 spaces are planned.

“I think there are solutions to all problems,” he said.

In addition to the 1.2 acres where the Rockhouse Grille is proposed, Rice also plans to redevelop eight acres on the east side of Gulf Boulevard and refurbish all existing structures. Plans include a rebuilt marina and a walkway around the area from Gator’s to the marina.

Rice said the first phase of the project west of Gulf Boulevard would cost about $15 million and the second phase on the east side “much more.” He said he hopes to begin construction immediately following approval.

“Also,” Rice said, “there’s a rumor that Rice Family Holdings will sell the (Rockhouse) property to someone else once (the special exception) is approved and that’s not the case. We’re moving forward because it needs to be redeveloped. We want to get rid of the blight.”
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