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Opinion
Longboat Key Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018 4 months ago

Make Longboat special

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They’re back, and doing it again. Longboat Key’s ardent anti-development, anti-traffic forces are stoking their constituents to kill Unicorp National Development’s latest redevelopment proposal for the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort property.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

The Longboat Key Town Commission is expected to discuss Monday afternoon in the John Ringling Room at the Longboat Key Club Unicorp’s request for an amendment to the zoning code. The commission’s vote — if it conducts one — will not be binding, but it likely will be a telling signal for the ultimate fate of Unicorp’s current plan. 

Here we are again. It is déjà vu — the standard resistance that has characterized Longboat Key for 35 years. “I have mine; you can’t have yours.” 

They killed the proposed Floridays hotel on the north end of the Key. 

They killed the mixed-use proposal for Whitney Beach Plaza.

They killed the proposal for 10 residential units on the Mote Scientific Foundation property on Gulf of Mexico Drive.

They killed Oscar Parson’s request to convert a commercial penthouse office at Harbour Square to one residential unit.

They killed the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s expansion plans a decade ago.

Memories of PIC

And now, the organized opposition to Unicorp — “Keep Longboat Special” and “Preserve Longboat” — is rekindling memories of the now-defunct Longboat Key Public Interest Committee (PIC). In its heydays in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, longtime Longboaters will remember how PIC fought commercial development on the Key, supporting the town’s labyrinthine zoning, development and sign codes. It was so successful that Longboat Key became known as having the worst business climate and the most difficult place in the region to do any development.

PIC was so successful in its anti-development efforts that it put Longboat Key on a path to destruction in the early 2000s. Shops at the former Avenue of the Flowers center (now the Shoppes at Bay Isles) shuttered one after another. The town’s restrictive zoning ordinances made redevelopment of the town’s other strip centers prohibitive — a condition that remains today. And the real estate bubble of the mid-2000s brought a wave of conversions of resorts to condominiums. We lost the Buccaneer Inn, the Holiday Inn and Holiday Beach Resort, among others.

And then it dawned on the PIC leaders. They saw what they wrought. PIC’s anti-development stance backfired. The negative commercial climate and disappearance of hotel guests meant fewer potential real estate buyers. You could feel and see it: Longboat Key was losing its luster as a premier resort-residential community. If the trends continued, property values would stagnate, if not decline. PIC’s leadership, as well as most Longboat voters and property owners, realized the Key needed a balance of residential, tourism and commercial enterprises.

In 2008, it was almost a shock, but the once anti-development PIC became one of the leading supporters of the charter amendment asking voters to create a bank of 250 tourism units to help bring back visitors and reinvigorate Longboat’s future and real estate market. Voters gave the amendment a resounding yes: More than 80% of voters approved the 250 tourism units.

Remember the consequences

Watch out what you wish for.

We know Keep Longboat Special says it would like to see the Colony redeveloped. But its leaders and the organization’s supporters say they want it essentially to be same size as the previous Colony. They oppose Unicorp’s request for an amendment in the town codes for a change in density from 4.5 units per acre to six units per acre in planned unit developments.

This never ceases to amuse and amaze us: For the past 15 years, Longboat Key essentially has been built out. As a result, the Key has been undergoing widespread redevelopment — particularly in its single-family home neighborhoods. Drive down any street on the north end, or through Country Club Shores on the south end, and you will see lot after lot where property owners have torn down 40- and 50-year-old homes and replaced them, in many cases, with McMansions, or at least with larger, expanded modern homes.

Many of those homeowners never would have purchased their properties had they been required to keep the outdated, rundown, tiny homes on their land. They opted, rightfully, to maximize the value of their land.

Why, then, is it OK for them to do that, but not Unicorp? Why is it OK to approve a density at the Zota Beach Resort of 39 units per acre, but not 15 units per acre at the new Colony? For that matter, why would anyone expect any developer of the Colony property to invest $100 million or more simply to duplicate what was on the property before — for a bygone era? 

Surely, the majority of Longboaters would prefer to see a five-star jewel on the Colony property to bring back and create new luster on Longboat Key, on a property that has been an eyesore for nearly a decade. And surely, the majority of Longboaters are rational enough to know that with every cut Unicorp is forced to make, they are cutting into the quality of the project and the aesthetic and economic benefits to the town. It’s pretty simple math: The fewer commercial properties that contribute to Longboat’s tax base means the higher residential property taxes will go.

If “Keep Longboat Special” truly wants to keep Longboat special, we would urge its members to remember history — specifically, the negative, unintended consequences of the Longboat Public Interest Committee’s opposition to development and growth.

Taxpayers and residents have suffered enough — 10 years — with the blight of the dilapidated Colony and millions of dollars in foregone tourist-tax collections. What Unicorp is seeking is only 31 more units on the Colony site than previously existed — 31 units that are part of the 250 units that voters overwhelmingly saw the wisdom of approving in 2008.

Remember the ULI report?

Five years ago, the town of Longboat Key asked a panel of advisers from the Urban Land Institute “to take an objective, big-picture perspective to help inform an update to the town’s 20-year comprehensive plan and vision and to create a roadmap implementation strategy with specific next steps.” 

By October of that year, the ULI panel issued a 50-page report and roadmap to implement. One of the summary recommendations was the following. 

Now would be a good time for clashing factions to heed the ULI report: 

Focus on the future instead of the past. 

Taking time to renew the future vision for Longboat Key is absolutely necessary for continued success. 

The 1980s-vintage plans and codes not only are out of date, but also perpetuate an unfortunate current pattern of community infighting, with good people focusing on the things that divide instead of working together and making more progress. 

The panel’s recommendation is not to amend the town’s comprehensive plan, but to replace it with a new plan tailored to meet the needs of the future. 

The panel recommends that the current system of “tourism units” and other complicated aspects of the legacy code be abandoned or suspended and that new zones that reflect the community vision be adopted.

The panelists also strongly recommend developing and adopting modern codes and permit processes to implement those policies in the land development process.

The importance of undertaking this planning and zoning process cannot be emphasized strongly enough.

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