The John’s Pass boardwalk in Madeira Beach.

MADEIRA BEACH — City commissioners have taken the first step toward increasing the limits on development in John’s Pass Village, a change they said is needed to allow property owners to rebuild their structures in the event of a disaster and to foster smart growth.

The commission voted 3-2 on Jan. 11 to approve an activity center for the 27-acre village, a Pinellas County designation that allows denser buildings and more structure per square foot of land in return for centralized developments that encourage visitors to park once and walk to destinations. Commissioners David Hutson and David Tagliarini voted “no.”

The change will now require approval from the Pinellas County Commission and Forward Pinellas, the county’s planning agency.

“It’s about the need to provide for what’s there and the opportunity for that to change and evolve in a reasonable fashion over time,” said David Healey, a consultant the city hired in 2021 to help design the plan.

John’s Pass Village is known for its fishing charters, trinket shops, restaurants and boardwalk.

The city began crafting the land use changes nearly two years ago in order to resolve a technical error that is posing a threat to existing buildings in the area.

In 2008, Madeira Beach changed its comprehensive plan to allow more square footage of development per property than what the county permits. The noncompliance means that in the event of a fire, hurricane or other catastrophe, the county’s rules would prevail during reconstruction and many John’s Pass buildings wouldn’t be allowed to be rebuilt as they exist.

Mayor John Hendricks said he had a petition from 29 business owners in the village who support the activity center in order to protect their properties.

“What we’re about to do here is basically allowing business owners to rebuild their nonconforming structures and allow for revitalization,” Commissioner Ray Kerr said.

But the “activity center” will increase density in most of the 27 acres beyond what exists. Residents also expressed fear that the land use change will open floodgates for over-development in the small beach community.

The activity center does not include height limits for buildings, but officials said those would be added in a subsequent zoning process for each of the six “character districts” created by the plan.

“I don’t have any idea of what’s going to end up in John’s Pass, and the reason is there are too many unknowns and too many variables,” resident Bonnie Lipa said.

Before the almost three-hour discussion began, Tagliarini requested the John’s Pass item be tabled. He said though Healey is a widely respected planner, the city improperly engaged his services because the former city manager hired him in 2021 without commission approval or going out to bid. City attorney Tom Trask confirmed the proper procedure wasn’t followed, and later in the meeting commissioners had to ratify the contract after the fact and after $46,000 had been paid to Healey.

Tagliarini said he received feedback from 105 residents who opposed the expansion.

On Jan. 8, the city received a report from land-use expert Charles Gauthier that said the plan would “over-intensify future land use on a barrier island that is highly vulnerable to hurricane surge and sea level rise.” Resident William Gay, who opposes the change, commissioned the report.

Healey acknowledged Gauthier’s math was correct in stating the plan would increase the density potential of residential units by 11% and temporary lodging units by 31%.

Gauthier also compared the amount of extra building floor area potential being provided to adding a Tyrone Square Mall in John’s Pass Village. But Healey said the analogy is unrealistic, because the maximum development potential could only be realized if all the existing buildings went away and John’s Pass Village was rebuilt from the ground up.