Proposed parking code changes spark controversy in Belleair Bluffs

City Commissioner Suzy Sofer, owner of Cody’s restaurant on the south side of West Bay Drive, said the competition from another restaurant operating in the plaza, a possibility with the proposed parking rules, could hurt her business in the COVID-19 era of fewer customers.

BELLEAIR BLUFFS — A plan to revise the city’s commercial parking code to accommodate more businesses and fill vacant shops has drawn opposition from one major owner, a city commissioner, who said it may put her out of business.

The concept had been discussed before and moved a step closer to reality at the June 15 City Commission meeting.

The city’s commercial parking code, written in 2000, has resulted in too many parking spaces being required by businesses, in an era where more people are walking, bicycling, or using services such as Uber or Lyft. That has meant new businesses wanting to open in the city’s commercial plazas cannot do so because not enough parking spaces are available to meet code requirements.

Empty stores cannot be filled, with potential occupants being turned away because of a lack of parking spaces.

City Administrator Debra Sullivan said there are businesses interested in filling the large space formerly occupied by the Wildfields market in the plaza on the south side of West Bay Drive. She mentioned several applicants were an eatery, dining, and a cigar bar, but not enough parking spaces are available for them.

Planner Luis Serna, who the city hired to come up with changes that update the parking code, presented his recommendations at the meeting. They included changing the rules so restaurant parking is based on number of seats rather than square footage, and allowing shared parking for businesses that operate at different peak hours. The result would be to reduce the overall number of parking spaces required.

“This involves changing the rules so all businesses don’t need as many spaces,” Sullivan said.

But Commissioner Suzy Sofer, owner of Cody’s restaurant on the south side of West Bay Drive, said the competition from another restaurant operating in the plaza, a possibility with the proposed parking rules, could hurt her business in the COVID-19 era of fewer customers.

“It’s going to put me out of business,” Sofer said.

She said the businesses in the plaza are currently not competing with each other, but the proposed changes to the parking code would “open the door” for another restaurant that would directly compete.

Sullivan said, “We don’t have a code that says only so many restaurants can be in a plaza.”

But Mayor Chris Arbutine, also a business owner, warned against going too far in relaxing the parking requirements. “We wouldn’t want to overdo it,” he said.

“You just can’t put ‘parking hogs’ into one area that congest all the parking, and the next thing no one’s profitable because there’s just not enough parking,” Arbutine said.

The discussion concluded with Arbutine responding to a resident who questioned “the personal interest expressed” in the commission comments.

“We may have certain interests but we always put our Belleair Bluffs hat on and do what’s right for the city, and I know that this commission is going to do that,” Arbutine said.

The commission agreed to have City Attorney Thomas Trask prepare an ordinance on the proposed revisions to the parking code. The vote was 4-1, with Sofer voting no.

First reading of the ordinance is scheduled for July, followed by a Planning Board hearing, and then a second vote by the commission.

West Bay project postponed

The West Bay Drive Complete Streets project, a proposal by the county to remake that thoroughfare by adding landscaped medians, pedestrian islands and a bike path, while narrowing traffic lanes, has been put off once more, Sofer said. The work would be done in connection with a resurfacing of the roadway.

The plan had been controversial from the start, especially the narrower traffic lanes with the stated purpose “to slow traffic.” The City Commission of Belleair Bluffs made their objections known to the county, and Belleair Shore and Belleair Beach passed resolutions opposing it.

The new schedule calls for a review of the design plan in fiscal year 2021-22, with construction in 2023.

“They took it off the books for now,” Sofer said.

Tentative millage rate unchanged at 5.35

The commission set budget hearing dates for the year and decided to leave the proposed millage rate for the upcoming year at 5.35, which is unchanged. Arbutine said lowering of the rate would be unwise, “due to the business conditions created by COVID-19.”

The rate can be lowered, but not raised in upcoming budget hearings, Arbutine pointed out.

“I want to see what we have coming in taxes, and make sure we have enough money to function properly,” he said. The city has a lot of reserve funds, Arbutine said, but the pandemic has created a situation never before faced.

“We think of hurricanes, but this is an emergency too,” the mayor said.

The current millage rate of 5.35 is unchanged since 2011, when it was raised from 4.35. It is currently the eighth highest rate of the 24 municipalities in the county.

Commissioner Joseph Barkley said he agreed with leaving the rate unchanged. “As much as I want to lower it, we have to be cautious,” he said.

Sofer said the pandemic had created added costs for the city, including additional money spent for protective screens in the office, cleaning and supplies like masks and gloves.

“These are costs we never thought we would see,” Sofer said.

Public hearings on the budget will be held Sept. 3 and 14, when the final millage rate will be set.