Belleair Bluffs seal

BELLEAIR BLUFFS – Upscale townhouses may yet become a part of the city’s housing mix.

The City Commission decided at its Oct. 8 workshop that a developer who has been buying up aging duplexes and triplexes in the city, wanting to convert them to upscale townhouses, may be able to proceed with his plans.

Some tweaks to the city code will be needed, as both the townhouses and the duplexes they will replace are non-conforming properties, meaning they do not meet current code requirements.

But that will be allowable with some “simple fixes” to the code, planner Luis Serna told the commission.

“This is something we can fix easily in the ordinance,” Serna said.

The willingness to make code changes that would allow townhouses was a turnaround from last month.

Then, the townhouse project had appeared doomed, when it was pointed out 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 a three-family unit. It would be necessary to assemble more adjoining property to meet the minimum lot size requirement.

Developer Ric Feinberg said acquiring extra lots to build the town homes would be “economically unfeasible.”

The city had previously hired planner Serna to recommend code changes that would permit the building of two separate dwelling units and owners on a property, rather than one, which would be needed for the townhouses. That could be done with setback and lot width changes, and changes to the residential urban and residential medium zoning districts, where the duplexes that would be replaced with townhouses existed.

Commissioners were willing to make these changes, but the lot size requirement had not come up. When it surfaced at the September commission workshop, it appeared to be a major obstacle that would likely kill the townhouse project. The commission appeared unwilling to make any further changes to the code.

Commissioner Suzy Sofer summed up the commissioners’ position when she said, “You do not change your code for one person.”

“We will not allow non-conforming properties to continue,” declared City Attorney Thomas Trask.

It appeared the city’s efforts to get the code changes needed to allow townhouses in the city had been wasted.

But all that changed at the October workshop meeting. Some tweaks to the code and adjustments would clear the way for the townhouse project to proceed. The revised ordinance will be on the agenda at the November commission meeting.

Feinberg was elated at the turnaround. Asked after the meeting if he had what he needs to start the process of building the townhouses, Feinberg said, “I think we do.”

He said, “It will be exciting for Belleair Bluffs to have these elegant properties.” He said he believes this “gentrification” will spur more improvements in the city.

Residents responsible for trimming trees, bushes on city right-of-ways

The commission passed an ordinance to require residents to prune their trees, bushes or shrubs that overhang any city street right-of-way or sidewalk.

Mayor Chris Arbutine said the city is now in the process of trimming and pruning back all interfering trees and bushes.

“We will do it, at our expense, the first time. After that, it’s the residents’ responsibility,” Arbutine said. The city has created a brochure describing pruning requirements that will be mailed to residents.

Resident Darlene Kavanagh said the responsibility of trimming trees overhanging the roadways could be a dangerous undertaking.

“It’s a safety issue for residents to be out there, over the street, with a ladder trying to trim a tree,” she said.

But Arbutine said, “If it’s your tree, on your property, it’s your responsibility. You are responsible for a tree that extends over a city right of way.”

Kavanagh said the trimming of vegetation on city streets used to be the city’s responsibility.

“Now you’re passing it on to the residents,” she said. “The city is doing less and less.”

But City Administrator Debra Sullivan said the trimming and pruning of trees and bushes that grow to overhang city streets and sidewalks has always been the residents’ responsibility. But up to now, that has not been stressed. The ordinance is just a reminder of what the residents need to do, she said.