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Date of Issue: May 28, 2008

Bradenton Beach board recommends cafe plan

The Gulf Drive Cafe, 900 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach, is asking the city to approve its proposed expansion. The plan earned the planning and zoning board recommendation May 22.

Bradenton Beach planning board members predicted last week as they approved a major expansion of the Gulf Drive Cafe that the chickee hut might become the must-have accessory on the beach.

The restaurant’s proposed chickee hut sounded so attractive to at least one member of the Bradenton Beach Planning and Zoning Board, Art Dehardt, he half-joked that he wants one.

Reviewing plans for the $500,000 expansion that earned the board’s recommendation May 22, Dehardt said everyone with beachfront property might want one.

“We could have an influx of chickee huts, couldn’t we?” Dehardt said.

“Absolutely,” replied city building official Steve Gilbert, adding that the planning board could expect to see another proposal for a chickee hut in the near future.

The meeting was continued from February, with planning board members Dehardt, Jo Ann Meilner, Joe Garbus and chairman Rick Bisio in attendance. Board members William Shearon and Robert Schubert did not attend.

To the board, the chickee hut seemed the most interesting aspect of the plans for the restaurant, 900 Gulf Drive N.

During the two-hour meeting, which included a public hearing, board members explored parking, lighting and even the number of employees needed to run a 252-seat restaurant, but they kept returning to the chickee hut — not to be confused with the cafe’s proposed South Pacific-influenced tiki hut, which generated no discussion.

“Chickee” or “chiki” is the Seminole word for house and the structures are considered by many Florida engineers to be among the simplest but most durable in hurricane-force winds.

A part of Native American tradition and culture, chickee huts built by members of the Seminole or Miccosukee tribes of Florida are exempt from the permitting process, though rules such as setbacks do apply.

State and federal policies define a chickee hut as an open-sided wooden hut with a thatched roof of palm or palmetto or other traditional materials, devoid of electric, plumbing or other non-wood features and constructed by the Miccosukee or Seminole tribe.

The restaurant’s chickee hut would be used for special events, such as wedding receptions or executive lunches.

Planning board members understood the concept of the chickee hut as an unimproved structure with no utilities, but were curious about use — when is a chickee hut a gathering place and when is it a restaurant?

Gilbert said there are some “gray areas,” but generally if the restaurant does not provide utilities and menus, the chickee hut is operating in a fashion similar to a park pavilion used for special events, not as a restaurant.

“It’s an unimproved shade structure,” Gilbert said. “I can’t call it a restaurant. What you need to keep in mind here is this is proposed to be used on an intermittent basis for gatherings.”

Bisio said, “A chickee hut is about as gray as you get.” As the concept gains in popularity, “this is going to be a source of contention over time,” he said.

“We could have a whole line of chickee huts going down the beach,” Dehardt observed.

“Yes,” said Gilbert, “as long as it’s private and it meets setback requirements, it’s an unimproved, open structure. That’s all it is.”

In proposing their expansion to the city, restaurant owners George and Wendy Kokolis have asked for city approval of the plans and a special exception for off-site parking on the east side of Gulf Drive.

The plans — in the works for more than two years — call for the construction of a 795-square-foot lobby, a tiki hut bar with some dining space, new rest rooms and a new short-order kitchen, a walkway to the beach and the 2,100-square-foot chickee hut.

Seating capacity after construction would be for 252 patrons. Parking is planned adjacent to the restaurant, in an existing lot and a new lot on the east side of Gulf Drive would provide a total of 90 spaces, including six employee spaces and spaces for reserved for people with disabilities, said project engineer Marie McCaughan.

McCaughan stepped in for architect Mike McCaleb, who presented the site plan for the expansion on behalf of cafe owners during a planning board meeting earlier this year. McCaleb has since retired.

In addition to concerns with the chickee hut, planning board members reviewed questions regarding the number and location of parking spaces and lighting impact on the beach.

Gilbert said the “turtle-compliant” lighting shown on the plans may not be the lighting eventually used at the restaurant. A state official assisting Bradenton Beach in monitoring interior and exterior lighting during the sea-turtle nesting season will offer advice on locations, fixtures and wattage as the project progresses. Artificial lighting can disorient nesting sea turtles and hatchlings.

In regards to parking, McGaughan said plans had been adjusted to eliminate public amenities, which should alleviate some concerns about public parking in the restaurant’s private lots.

A proposal for public beach access was eliminated from the plans in response to concerns about beachgoers gobbling up the restaurant’s parking. “This is not going to be a public facility,” McGaughan said.

Bisio questioned whether the plans provide sufficient employee parking — the plans indicate that at its busiest time, the restaurant would have 12 employees and thus need six employee spaces. The city’s code requires one parking space for every two employees.

“How do you run a restaurant with 12 people and serve 250 people?” Bisio asked. Later he added, “I think you need to revisit that number.”

Wendy Kokolis, speaking from the audience, said a majority of her employees do not drive to work.

“That’s another issue,” Bisio replied.

Other planning board members said it was not the board’s concern how many employees the restaurant employed and that similar questions were not raised in reviewing previous plans.

“We took them at their word didn’t we?” Meilner asked, referring to previous restaurant plans and parking-employee projections for the city pier and other operations.

Garbus said, “It’s not in the land-development code and if it’s not in the code, I don’t want to deal with it.”

The board agreed to move on, with Gilbert making a note to return to the issue when the board revisits the land-development code.

Previous expansion plans submitted by the Gulf Drive Cafe also called for a full development of the area that formerly served as the location of the Trader Jack restaurant, the largest parcel of developable property in the city, much of it a concrete slab. McGaughan said the concrete would probably remain and most of the Trader Jack site redeveloped at a later date.

“We are not going to develop the whole site,” she said. “We’ve eliminated a great deal of the Trader Jack site in the project plan. We don’t want to take out any of the concrete. We want to see how this goes and maybe come back for a bed and breakfast.”

Before the close of the public hearing on the plans, Gilbert addressed several letters from neighbors registering concerns about parking and traffic congestion, but not objecting to the project. He said the statements had been received for the first public hearing date, before amendments to the plans and dealt primarily with enforcement matters, not planning issues.

The vote to send a recommendation to the city commission for approval with several stipulations was 4-0. The stipulations were that space is reserved along the east side parking lot for expanding the sidewalk in the future, that Gilbert and the city attorney prepare notes explaining a chickee hut to the city commission and that a unity of title be provided, tying together the Gulf Drive Cafe and Trader Jack properties.

“I like the whole concept, I really do,” Dehardt said.