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Longboat Key Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009 10 years ago

Longboat Key's bipolar disorder


Last week was a big news week on Longboat Key.

• The Longboat Key Hilton Beachfront Resort announced it wants to add 85 rooms to its 105 existing rooms and build a new wing.

• The Longboat Key Club and Resort released the results of an important summer survey, showing typical Longboat Key schizophrenia over the club’s expansion plans.

• And opponents to the Key Club’s expansion filed another appeal to challenge and block the club’s application to expand.

Each of these news items adds a page or two to the many chapters on the town’s bipolar disorder on tourism and development. And in and of themselves, each news development has important implications:

+ How will Hilton be treated?
By following through on his company’s previously stated intentions to expand the Hilton, Ocean Properties Ltd. owner Mark Walsh (no relation to this newspaper) is making a statement that his company is optimistic about the Hilton’s economic future on Longboat Key. For good reason, too.

When you look at the economic and business risks facing the Hilton, vis-à-vis other nearby markets, the risks are low, the opportunities attractive. Walsh and his colleagues obviously still see Longboat Key as a strong tourist destination. It’s easy to reach for Tampa Bay residents who want to get away. And the fact there are so few similar resorts on Longboat Key makes it all the more attractive for travelers who don’t want crowded beaches and want the quiet ambience of Longboat Key.

Nonetheless, Walsh and his fellow Ocean Properties executives are acutely aware of the risks that could change the proformas on the project: the town and the reaction of the Hilton’s neighbors.

No doubt Ocean Properties executives have watched the treatment of the Longboat Key Club’s expansion plans. And you can bet they are wary of which personality the town and the Key’s residents will demonstrate — the Henry Jekyll of obstructionist opposition or an Edward Hyde of welcome and accommodation? Will we be friend or foe to Ocean Properties’ capital?

Whichever personality emerges will be telling. Count on this: The owners of the Key Club will be watching every step of the Hilton’s process, with a particular eye on the U.S. constitutional provision of equal treatment under the law.

An aside: Let it be said, this newspaper extends a welcome to Ocean Properties. Longboat Key needs this investment.

+ The Key Club survey

It took less than 24 hours for one of our readers to send a letter doubting the validity of a telephone survey that Kerr & Downs Research performed for the Longboat Key Club and Resort. The survey, conducted earlier this summer, quizzed respondents on their opinions of tourism on the Key and the Key Club’s proposed renovation-expansion plans.

The validity of the survey is not an issue. It’s a red herring to raise questions of bias; indeed, the results don’t cast the Key Club project completely in the point of view that the club would prefer. The issue here is the contents of the results.

In broad terms, the survey results provide no surprises. To wit: 86% of the respondents who live outside of the Key Club’s gates agree that tourism is important to the Key’s economy. Fifty-five percent of the respondents behind the gates feel the same way. To some extent, it is surprising that only 55% of those behind the gates believe tourism is important to Longboat Key’s economy. You know they know it is. It’s more likely they don’t want to say anything to lean in favor of the Key Cub’s cause.

Nonetheless, while a solid majority believes tourism is important to Longboat Key, only 50% of the respondents outside of the gates said they support the Key Club’s proposed renovations and expansion, and 37% said they oppose it. It was completely predictable and expected that those living behind the gates would say they oppose the project overwhelmingly.

Altogether, the survey results reflect and reaffirm Longboat Key residents’ bipolarity on tourism and development. Indeed, this is the story of Florida for the past 30 years: Those who retire here for the peace and beauty of coastal Florida often lead the charge to stop others from having what they have. And the amazing part is the groups that block development never acknowledge the disconnection — that it’s OK for them to have their slice of paradise but not OK for others to have it, why it’s OK for them to profit from their property but not OK for others to profit from their property.

For those residents outside the gates and who are opposed to the Key Club project, here’s another angle to consider on that dichotomous view: Call it enlightened self-interest.

You have seen these past three years what a declining economy does to your own wealth and what that means for your heirs. Surely, you prefer the opposite — rising values, rising net worth, both of which come from economic growth and expansion, not contraction.

+ The second appeal

It was news that residents and condo associations on Longboat Club Road opposed to the Key Club’s expansion filed a second appeal, claiming the Key Club’s application is incomplete. But it also was not news. It was expected.

The strategy appears obvious: Take whatever steps necessary to delay, obstruct, annoy, to cause Longboat Key Club General Manager Michael Welly to withdraw the project altogether. And further, the strategy appears to be to keep the project from having its day in front of the Longboat Key Town Commission.

The more this strategy and these tactics are employed, the more Longboat Key taxpayers (and town commissioners) must be aware of the risks to the town and ultimately to taxpayers.

Remember the Klauber suit? In the mid-1990s, Dr. Murray “Murf” Klauber won a $10 million judgment against the town over a property dispute. Klauber and the town settled for nearly $7 million in cash — all of which Longboat Key taxpayers paid in their annual property taxes.

In this instance, as the process and opposition moves along, two constitutional issues are likely to come into play:

• On the federal level, it’s Amendment 14, which states: “ … nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

• On the state level, the looming constitutional matter is the Bert J. Harris Jr. Private Property Rights Protection Act. The Harris Act, in essence, forbids the state and local governments from imposing an “inordinate” burden, restriction or limit on private property without compensation. Read the law, and you’ll conclude this is a risk for the town.

In its earnestness and aggressiveness to stop the Key Club, if the opposition ultimately leads to the Town Commission denying the Key Club’s project, it is plausible to expect the lawyers for Key Club Associates, the owner of the resort, to sue the town (i.e. taxpayers) on the basis of denial of constitutional rights.

The legal skirmishes over whether an application is complete or incomplete may be achieving the effect that Bob White and the Islandside Property Owners Coalition want. But they are adding negatively to an overall atmosphere of division and inevitable confrontation that could end up exacting an unnecessary burden on the town and Longboat Key residents and taxpayers in general.

Get on with the public hearings. Give the Key Club plan its day in the commission. Constant division and confrontation benefit no one.

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