BELLEAIR BLUFFS – Prospects dimmed for a developer who is buying up aging duplex and triplex properties in the city, wanting to convert them to upscale townhouses. Code revisions had been made to accommodate the townhouse plan. Ownership rules were changed, but lot size requirements were not factored in and may now be a major obstacle.

The existing duplexes are rented by the owner to two families. The proposed town homes, with two being placed on what is now one lot, would be sold to separate owners. The ownership split is not allowed by the current city code, which permits only one owner per lot. That effectively prohibits townhouses’ development in the affected zoning districts.

The City Commission has been working with the townhouse issue since May, when developer Ric Feinberg of Belleair Asset Management Fund, LLC presented his townhouse proposal, which he said would be a substantial upgrade of the properties and “a significant improvement for Belleair Bluffs.”

In June, the commission agreed to hire a professional planner who would, in Mayor Chris Arbutine’s words “assist the city with the development and adoption of appropriate code revisions to permit the development of townhouses in select areas of the city.”

At their August workshop, planner Luis Serna gave the commission his recommendations, which included changes to the zoning districts, along with setback and lot width changes that would allow the building of two separate dwelling units and owners on the property, rather than one.

The changes, Serna said, would allow townhouses in those districts where duplexes and triplexes are now allowed.

Feinberg’s plan to convert duplexes and triplexes into upscale townhouses appeared ready to become a reality.

But when the commission actually saw and reviewed the proposed code revisions at their Sept. 10 workshop meeting, a major obstacle came up.

Minimum lot size requirements, which had been increased in 1999 to 12,000 square feet for a two-family dwelling and 18,000 square feet for a three-family unit, are larger than any properties in the zoning districts where the townhouses would be built. That means Feinberg would have to acquire additional side-by-side lots for his developments.

Feinberg said his town homes would likely be two-story, larger than the one-story duplexes he is acquiring. But he said he would build them on the “same footprint” as the duplexes, which are on lots smaller than 10,000 square feet.

But the existing duplexes are “non-conforming,” City Attorney Thomas Trask said. Any improvements would have to conform to the current code, with a minimum lot size of 12,000 square feet.

“We want to build as big as we can, but we will build on the existing footprint,” Feinberg said.

“The land itself is very expensive,” Feinberg told the commission.

Acquiring extra lots to build the townhouses is “economically unfeasible,” he said.

The lot sizes had not been brought up at previous commission meetings where the townhouses were discussed, and it appeared to take the commission members and Feinberg by surprise.

Attorney Trask said Feinberg’s plan to convert the duplexes to two-story townhouses on the same footprint will not work.

“We will not allow non-conforming properties to continue,” Trask said.

Arbutine appeared dismayed that the city’s efforts to get the code changes needed to allow the townhouses to be built now appear to be wasted.

“We’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money on this. I’m wondering why this (lot size requirement) never came up,” he said.

Arbutine added, “We all believed, by passing this, the duplexes would easily be converted to townhouses. Nobody sitting at this table ever brought this up.”

“We did this the right way,” Arbutine said. “We talked to the planner, who tried to positively make a change here, and discussed it with the attorney, administrator and the commission. But now it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.”

Commissioners appeared to be unwilling to make any further code changes to accommodate the building of townhouses.

Commissioner Joseph Barkley said, “We as a city need to be flexible. But on the other hand, we can’t just make a decision for one person.”

Commissioner Suzy Sofer agreed. “You do not change your code for one person.”

Arbutine asked to have the topic put on next month’s workshop agenda, rather than voting on the proposed ordinance at the upcoming regular meeting.

“I would like to defer this to next month’s workshop, and in the meantime I’d like for you to allow me to contact the planner myself, talk to Debra (Sullivan, city administrator), talk to the attorney, and bring back some suggestions,” the mayor said. The commissioners agreed.

Budget approved at first hearing

The commission voted unanimously at a budget hearing on Sept. 6 to keep next year’s millage (tax) rate at 5.35 mills, where it has been since 2011. While the tax rate is unchanged, the city will receive more tax revenue because of a 7.7 percent increase in property values. The budget was approved at $2.2. million, which includes $250,000 for drainage improvements on Dolphin Drive.

A final budget hearing will be held at the regular commission meeting on Sept. 17.