BELLEAIR BLUFFS – Townhouses now appear almost certain to become the latest addition to the city’s diverse housing mix.

The City Commission on Nov. 19 unanimously approved an ordinance that gives developer Ric Feinberg the last remaining code changes he had sought and clears the way for him to begin replacing existing duplexes and triplexes with what he says will be upscale townhouses.

When the idea of townhouses in Belleair Bluffs first came up in April, that housing type was not allowed under current city codes. The commission removed a provision that required two and three family dwellings to have one owner, which was true for the existing duplexes and triplexes, but presented an obstacle for townhouses, where each unit is individually owned.

Yet another problem with the townhouse development surfaced at the September commission workshop, related to lot size requirements. It was pointed out that none of the duplexes that would be replaced with townhouses met the minimum lot size requirement, which is 12,000 square feet for a two-family dwelling and 18,000 square feet for the three-family building. The existing duplexes and triplexes are “nonconforming” properties that do not meet those requirements.

Feinberg had said acquiring extra lots to get the land needed to build the townhomes would be “economically unfeasible.”

That lot-size requirement had threatened to doom the townhouse project. But a planning consultant hired by the city to make the needed code changes decided the problem could be resolved with some “tweaks” and “simple fixes” to the code.

At the November meeting, the commission approved code changes that allow the nonconforming use to continue. The code now reads, “Sites that contain legally existing, nonconforming two-family or three-family dwellings may be redeveloped or subdivided as two-unit or three-unit townhouses notwithstanding the minimum area requirements of this district as long as the total number of proposed townhouse dwelling units will not exceed the existing number of dwelling units on the site.”

The commission unanimously approved the code changes on first reading of the ordinance. Feinberg said the changes were needed to begin replacing the ageing duplex properties with townhouses, which he said would “enhance the city significantly.”

Resident Steve McNally objected to the commission’s decision to change the code, saying residents are required to follow city ordinances.

“If my house is nonconforming, I have to bring it into compliance,” he said. “The city doesn’t make a new law for me. Laws are not changed for individuals,” McNally said.

Commissioner Suzy Sofer made a similar comment at a previous discussion of the townhouse issue. When the lot size problem first came up, commission members were reluctant to make any further changes to the code. Sofer summed up the commissions’ position then when she said, “You do not change your code for one person.”

But the commissioners’ stance changed when the “simple fixes” were presented, and they were satisfied that the result was an upgrade in the housing while retaining existing setbacks, height, and building footprints.

“We’ve spent a lot of time working on this,” Sofer said.

She described the conditions under which the townhouses can be built. They must have the same footprint, same maximum height of 25 feet, and the same setbacks as the duplexes being replaced, Sofer said.

The difference is, “we are just allowing ownership of a property with a single wall shared, with property improvements,” she said.

The townhouses are only allowed in the zoning areas where duplexes or triplexes now exist, Sofer said.

“They cannot just pop up anywhere,” she said.

Commissioner Taylour Shimkus said she believes the townhouses are “a good thing for Belleair Bluffs.” She said she lives in a neighborhood where there are duplexes that Feinberg owns and intends to convert to townhomes. The duplexes are old and not well maintained, she said.

“I see this as an improvement that is going to increase property values,” Shimkus said.

Mayor Chris Arbutine, along with Commissioners Joseph Barkley and Jack Nazario, said they agreed.

The code changes will now go to the city Planning Commission for their recommendation. A second reading of the ordinance, at next month’s commission meeting Dec. 10, is needed for final approval.

Municipal election March 12

The municipal election is scheduled for March 12, 2019, with Arbutine, Sofer and Nazario up for re-election. All three said they intend to run again. The qualifying period for persons wanting to run for these seats starts on Monday, Dec. 3, and ends Tuesday, Dec. 18.