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AM commissioners begin talks on selling ‘white elephant’ park

By Rick Catlin, Islander Reporter

Architect and former Anna Maria Commissioner Gene Aubry looks over the vacant lots at Pine Avenue and North Bay Boulevard. Aubry provided a design for the park — with parking and restrooms — that spawned a donation from resident Rex Hagen to help fund the improvements. Following his tenure, a new board of commissioners rejected the parking element and agreed to refund donations, including funds expended by Pine Avenue Restoration. Islander File Photo: Bonner Joy

Many Anna Maria residents might be surprised to know of a white elephant in the city.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “white elephant” as “a property requiring much care and expense and yielding little profit.”

If so, then the six vacant lots at the east end of Pine Avenue certainly qualify.

Speaking at the May 22 commission meeting, Mayor SueLynn said the city has been paying $225,000 per year for three years, and the property, recently named the City Pier Park by the commission, is nothing but sand and trees. And some of the trees are dying, she added.

“It’s an eyesore. It’s time for the commission to do something,” she said. “This is money that could be well spent on other projects needed in the city.”

The city purchased the property in October 2011 for $2.8 million. In 2012, the commission approved a plan to build a park with public bathrooms and 15 spaces for cars with the aid of private donations.

A new commission in late 2012 rejected that plan and the donations, but no other project and no improvements have been proposed.

“We need to do something,” the mayor said. “Either turn it into a paid-parking lot or sell it.”

Commissioner Carol Carter doesn’t mind selling the property, but said she worries more vacation rentals would be developed there.

That can’t happen with a sale, city attorney Jim Dye said, as the property has been rezoned to open space. The commission would have to rezone the park to either retail-office-residential, commercial or residential for a buyer to have a revenue stream.

Commission Chair Chuck Webb said he was against buying the property three years ago because “the price was too high.”

He eventually voted for the purchase to prevent more resort housing. While Webb had no objection to improving the park for public use or selling the property, he is opposed to a parking lot. He also noted that island property values have increased significantly since 2011, and that the property may be worth more than $2.8 million.

Webb suggested the land could be a commercial site.

Commissioner Nancy Yetter said immediate action is needed. “Either we come up with a plan that will encourage visitors and residents to use the park, or we sell the property. But let’s do something. I’m tired of continually talking about issues and nothing gets done.”

SueLynn said commissioners should consider ideas such as a sale or a park and bring suggestions back to the next commission meeting. She wants to fast-track the matter.

Commissioner Dale Woodland agreed with selling. “I don’t think either our residents or visitors would use a park. They’d much prefer to cross the street and look at the water.”

The issue will be on the June 12 commission agenda.

In other business, commissioners agreed the house at 246 Gladiolus St. is a duplex, violating city code because the owner lives there and rents a portion of the home to vacationers.

Building official Bob Welch presented evidence the owner, Scott Hart, is advertising a vacation rental.

City attorney Jim Dye said two separate kitchens makes it a duplex, and development of duplexes has been prohibited by the city since 2008.

SueLynn said she was concerned “this could become a flood in the future of people trying to circumvent our code.”

Welch said he gets only one or two building applications a year for a guest cottage or “mother-in-law” quarters, and none include a kitchen. A certificate of occupancy would be denied if an application called for two kitchens, he said.

Commissioners instructed code enforcement officer Gerry Rathvon, to proceed with a code violation case. At the same time, city planner Alan Garrett will work on new definitions regarding dwellings and residences in the city.

Residents of Blue Heron Drive scored a victory when half of the eight residents on the drive spoke against a no-parking provision for the small traffic island on the street that is owned by the city.

Commissioners agreed to remove the no-parking provision from a traffic ordinance amendment, but SueLynn said a sign saying “Caution, children” is needed because the city needs some liability protection.

Also in the amendment, commissioners agreed to remove the first parallel parking space at the southeast corner of the Spring Avenue/Gulf Drive intersection, and at the southeast corner of the Magnolia Avenue/Gulf Drive intersection.

“This will create a better visibility triangle for motorists accessing Gulf Drive,” Garrett said.

The public hearing on the amendment was continued to 6 p.m. Thursday, June 12, at city hall, 10005 Gulf Drive.

Commissioners also continued the public hearing on amendments to the sign ordinance to 6 p.m. Thursday, June 26, while Garrett and Dye revise the ordinance and the special exception procedures for businesses to have an A-frame or sandwich board sign.

The special exception currently states an applicant must show “special conditions and circumstances” to receive the exception. The amendment includes a provision exempting properties in the public recreation area and public semi-private zoning areas from removing non-electric changeable signs. Changeable signs such as those at city hall, Island Players and Roser Memorial Community Church will be allowed to remain.

The mayor said the ban on A-frame signs will not be enforced while awaiting special exception approval by the commission.

3 Responses to AM commissioners begin talks on selling ‘white elephant’ park

  1. John Chambers says:

    When a municipality purchases a parcel of land which will cost nearly twice the annual budget of the city before it is paid for and it has no immediate need or requirement for the land or consensus for its use, one should wonder if the Commissioners need a course on fiscal responsibility. However, the fact that they recognize that a mistake was made is encouraging and it is an opportune time to unload the debt and expenses of maintaining the property while presumably realizing a profit given the increase in property values over the last few years. In addition, the tax base will be increased especially when improvements are made. Please give this issue your immediate attention without any drawn-out analysis.

  2. Jon Crane says:

    Regarding sale of “the White Elephant” park You can’t really blame a piece of real property for its lack of usefulness. No you have to blame its stewards. It is a potentially very useful property serving residents and tourists alike and we were so close… The city had finally made the decision to go forward with the park. Gene Aubrey designed it. Rex Hagen donated the trees and bathrooms. PAR was contributing maintenance. Then the plug was pulled for some quaint theoretical reason having to do with no-string-donations. There is indeed an elephant in the room but it is not those 6 beautiful lots on the bay.

    • Maureen Dahms says:

      I think that any green space that can be saved by and for the city is one of the most important things a city could do for it’s future and it’s people. The comments by John Chambers are really out of touch with the needs of Anna Maria. The problem isn’t the purchase of those beautiful lots for the people’s use, it is the ridiculous rejection of all the contributions made by folks who were willing to give their time and money to make something useful and important happen for Anna Maria. If those lots are sold, developers will benefit and the people lose. Close your eyes and envision that corner in a few years. What would be nicer to live with, a sweet and tasteful little park with places to sit and chat, Or, 3 story buildings lining the street. I know what I would rather see.

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