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Date of Issue: October 20, 2005

Anna Maria warned: Big developers coming

Attracted by the Anna Maria ambiance, rising land values and lack of proper land-development controls, rich developers with plenty of cash are eyeing Anna Maria real estate to assemble enough parcels to build subdivisions of massive new homes near the water. Money is no object and the developers could change the entire landscape of quiet, peaceful Anna Maria.

That was the frightening picture painted by city planner Alan Garrett at the Oct. 13 city commission meeting. Garrett had been asked to look into the issue by the commission and Mayor SueLynn.

"Don't think it can't happen here," warned Garrett. It's already happening on Siesta Key and Casey Key, where deep-pocket developers have purchased million-dollar adjacent homes to collect enough parcels to rebuild with a new subdivision - and more homes than previously existed on those properties.

And Anna Maria's current zoning codes allow such a possibility, even if the city's comprehensive plan requires the city to maintain or reduce density in the coastal high- hazard areas seaward of the coastal construction control line.

Garrett explained that there are a number of parcels within the hazard area that are oversize lots, so it's not improbable for a developer to purchase two or three adjoining single-family homes just for the lot size, then sub-divide and have enough land to build eight or 10 new homes in accordance with the city's density requirements.

What's $5 million to buy the properties when new homes in Anna Maria could sell for $2 million or more? he asked.

And it's not just waterfront property developers are looking for, Garrett noted. Anywhere in the city is a desirable location to build just for its name, location and lifestyle.

"This is not a fairy tale," said Garrett. It's happening all along the Gulf coast and, sooner or later, Anna Maria will be a target, if not already.

Bean Point would be an attractive area for developers because a number of lots, although only 50 feet wide, have increased in depth over the years because of Mother Nature and now have nearly an acre of land a developer could use to compute density.

But there is a solution to the frightful picture of Anna Maria being turned into one giant subdivision of new homes.

The city can adopt a "zoning overlay district," said Garrett, that regulates development in the high-hazard area by limiting the minimum buildable lot size, setbacks and density.

City Attorney Jim Dye agreed that an overlay district is a useful tool to control development, but such action would require an ordinance and two public hearings, a process that could take about 30 days, said Garrett.

Commissioners, however, wanted immediate action to halt the prospect of big developers taking over Anna Maria.

Commissioner Dale Woodland suggested the commission adopt a moratorium on subdividing property seaward if the CCCL. The first reading on the ordinance would be Oct. 27, then the commission could hold a special meeting 10 days later to pass the moratorium, while Garrett is finalizing the overlay district measure.

"There's no question we need to do this as fast as possible," said Commissioner Duke Miller. "Big money is coming," he predicted.

Indeed, big money may already be in Anna Maria. Like vultures circling over the dead carcass, attorneys representing land owners looking for a big profit on the potential sale of property to greedy land developers may already be eyeing the potential victim, circling the "L" word like Indians attacking the wagon train.

Attorney Kevin Hennessey, representing the Lockwood Development LLC, owners of 703 N. Shore Drive, cautioned that the commission needed to "be careful" with any moratorium that "frustrates" the reasonable expectation of a return on investment by a property owner. The commission, he warned, could be setting itself up for possible legal action, particularly under Florida's Bert Harris property rights act.

"The overlay district has to be rationally and reasonably based," he said.

Mayor SueLynn said she expected a lawyer to bring up the Bert Harris Act as a potential legal challenge to the city's efforts for an overlay district, but she's confident after a lengthy discussion with Dye that the city is on solid legal grounds.

City residents supported the proposal, even property owner Dick York of North Shore Drive, who has seen Mother Nature over the years increase his lot size to more than an acre in size. York told commissioners he figured he could now build 16 houses, according to the city's current density requirements, but he's more interested in maintaining the beauty of the city rather than making a quick buck.

The moratorium would apply only to sub-dividing parcels and would not apply to construction on an already-platted lot, Dye said.

The CCCL begins at the city limits and extends north around Bean Point, ending at a location near the Rod & Reel Pier. A map of the CCCL is available at city hall.

In other business, the commission discussed the Occupational License Tax ordinance that would require all businesses operating in the city to obtain an annual license.

Miller wondered whether or not this would apply to companies such as lawn maintenance and insurance sales that are based elsewhere, but have clients in Anna Maria. He also questioned SueLynn on how much money the measure would generate and how much revenue did the prior OLT bring to the city.

Anna Maria had an OLT until October 2003, when the city discovered that the original ordinance was passed by the city commission after the deadline established by the Florida Legislature for municipalities to approve such an ordinance.

SueLynn said she would bring the figures to the commission's November worksession.

The commission also agreed to an ordinance increasing the local communications tax as allowed by the Florida Legislature. The final reading will be in November.

Commissioners also held a lengthy debate on whether or not to establish attendance rules for commissioners.

Under the city charter, the commission can set attendance requirements and give a commissioner the boot if he or she fails to meet those standards.

The commission agreed to adopt a rule that a commissioner cannot miss three consecutive regular meetings, but continued further discussion to its November workshop.