CLEARWATER – Stung by accusations that Clearwater is an unfriendly place to start a new business, city officials in 2011 created the Business Task Force to suggest ways to help new businesses cut through the red tape.
One suggestion made by the task force, which was comprised of prominent members of the construction, engineering and legal fields, was intended to streamline the approval process for hotels and other major construction projects. But some city staffers fear that it will have the opposite effect.
Currently, the city’s community development code requires a developer to have his development agreement approved by both the Development Review Committee and the Community Development Board before proceeding with construction. But the suggested change would allow the Clearwater City Council to approve the development agreement and give the developer permission to go ahead with his project without involving the DRC or the CDB.
“Development agreements have primarily been used in Clearwater in conjunction with land use plan amendments and rezoning applications to restrict maximum development potential in order to limit traffic impacts and ensure neighborhood compatibility, to allocate density through the hotel density pool and hotel density reserve on Clearwater Beach, and to provide a mechanism for phasing for large projects,” a staff memo to the council explained.
Initially, the city’s planning and development department had no objection to the proposed change. But at the council’s Jan. 14 work session, Gina Clayton in that department came to the podium and said that her department had changed its mind and now opposes the change.
“What we’re concerned about is the potential for conflict” between the council and the CDB, Clayton said.
Another concern, expressed in the staff memo, is that Florida statutes require that any plan submitted must be consistent with the community development code, and Clearwater’s code is unique in regard to such things as height, setback and parking requirements, so those parts of a developer’s plan require CDB or DRC approval. Plans given preliminary approval by the city council might have to be modified later if they don’t meet CDB or DRC criteria. Also, the memo says, having a process where a developer’s development agreement and development plan are approved by the City Council does not meet the letter of the law, which requires CDB or DRC approval.
“We’re concerned about a potential conflict,” between the council and the CDB, as well as creating extra work for the council, Clayton said.
Councilmember Bill Jonson said that, in the red-hot real estate market of 2004 and 2005, when “people were paying ridiculous amounts for land” and trying to get the maximum use out of every square inch of that land, reviewing development agreements might have overworked the council. But in today’s sluggish real estate market, when an average of only five such agreements are reviewed each year, it’s not a problem.
Assistant City Attorney Leslie Dougall-Sides said that having the city council review development agreements, which can last for 20 years, might require changes to those agreements as the codes change in the future.
Councilmember Jay Polglaze suggested having the council give “conditional approval” to development agreements, contingent upon certain criteria being met. City Attorney Pam Akin replied that while that would be legal, it might not solve the problem.
Councilmember Doreen Hock-DiPolito, a former CDB member who manages her family’s construction business and is considered the council’s expert on construction matters, favored sticking with the current system. She called it “the right way to go” if the city wants to avoid litigation.
In the end, the council decided to postpone a decision until Brian Aungst Jr., chairman of the Business Task Force and the son of a former Clearwater mayor, can be available to add his input.