BELLEAIR BLUFFS — The city has been awarded a $50,000 grant for playground equipment, Commissioner Taylour Shimkus announced at the July 20 City Commission meeting.

“We worked hard for three years and we finally got it,” she said. “I am so excited.”

The children’s playground at City Hall will have updated equipment for the first time in nearly 20 years. Existing facilities have been there since shortly after the current City Hall was built in 2001, said City Administrator Debra Sullivan.

Plans call for replacing the preschool kids’ equipment, and enhancing the older children’s play area. The most significant improvement will be the addition of adult exercise equipment around the perimeter of the park. Sullivan said that feature helped to get the grant approved, and will be especially appreciated by parents who bring their children to the park. Another picnic area is also being added.

The grant does not require matching funds from the city. So, city residents enjoy $50,000 in playground enhancements totally funded by a state grant from the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program.

There was $12.3 million in grant money available, Shimkus said, and a lot of it was competitive. She was part of the team that put together the winning grant bid package, along with Sullivan, Public Works supervisor Russ Schmader, and grant writer Linda Fisher of Forward Pinellas.

In past years, Belleair Bluffs was just a few points short of getting the grant.

Parking code changes get approval

City officials have proposed changes to their commercial parking code that would make it easier for new businesses to locate in their shopping plazas. The ordinance was passed on first reading, with one commissioner abstaining and the others approving.

Under the proposed code, a new formula is used for determining how many parking spaces a business must have in order to open for business. Also, shared parking is allowed for businesses that operate at different peak hours. It is expected that this will help solve the problem of empty stores that could not be filled because of stringent parking requirements.

The rationale for reducing the parking requirements for businesses is that more people are walking, biking and taking Uber or Lyft, rather than parking a car in the parking lot.

At last month’s commission meeting, Commissioner Suzy Sofer, owner of the local Cody’s restaurant, said the proposed changes to the parking code would put her out of business. She said lowering the parking requirements would “open the door” for another restaurant that would directly compete with hers, making it unprofitable.

Sofer announced at the July meeting that she would be recusing herself from voting on the parking ordinance.

Mayor Chris Arbutine, while voting yes on the ordinance, said, “City Hall needs to make sure if this has some adverse unintended consequences, we need to be paying attention to our businesses.”

Another provision in the ordinance applies to residential parking of boats and RVs. Such equipment has been allowed on a temporary basis under certain conditions, which were difficult to enforce. Under the new ordinance, boats and RVs will no longer be allowed to sit in the rear or side yards of residences at all. They will be required to be out of sight, in enclosed garages.

When asked if some people might be upset about the changed rules for boats and RVs, Sullivan replied, “It could be. But there’s a lot more people complaining about (boats or RVs) being there, than the people who have them.”

The ordinance now goes to Planning Board for a hearing, and then will come before the commission again for final approval in August.

Christmas tree lighting event

The commission decided to go forward with the Christmas tree lighting event this year, although it may need to change “just a little” to conform to the new reality of COVID-19.

Arbutine said he knew there would need to be adjustments, “but don’t change it a lot, and don’t eliminate it for sure.” He said specific changes could be determined closer to the event.

It is expected that the tree lighting, Santa Claus, the hayride, food and music will all be there, but done in a safe and healthy way.

Sofer said Santa Claus could be in an elevated chair where the children walk up to get their picture taken.

“Keep everything, but make adjustments for corona,” Arbutine said. “Children can’t hug Santa. The Salvation Army Band may have to be replaced with a smaller group or Christmas-themed singer.”

“Save our Christmas, change it just a little, it’s that simple,” Arbutine said.