Progress on protecting Anna Maria Island's quality of life

January 31, 2013 

Tourism can be a doubled-edged sword that blesses a community with prosperity while altering the character of residential neighborhoods. The island communities of Holmes Beach and Anna Maria are wrestling with that delicate balancing act over the construction of giant vacation homes that rent out to problem visitors -- all in an attempt to preserve the quality of life for year-round residents. Many have been demanding action in droves at city commission meetings and at the ballot box.

The new triumvirate that took control of the Holmes Beach commission away from the three incumbents in November are busy fulfilling their campaign pledge to rein in the development of large-scale duplexes -- at least for now. By adopting a six-month moratorium this month on construction in neighborhoods zoned for duplexes, the commission now has time to take a thorough look at the city's regulations governing this type of development.

New Mayor Carmel Monti and Commissioners Judy Titsworth and Marvin Grossman campaigned on a platform to halt the demolition of aging, small duplexes that paves the way for large residences with numerous bedrooms.

Some vacationers disrespect neighbors with excessive noise and garbage as well as parking violations from too many vehicles on a single property as the residences fill with large groups.

The Holmes Beach commission wisely froze construction to review the city's land development code, zoning regulations and comprehensive plan.

The moratorium ordinance describes the controversy well: Elevated structures built over the past five years in the duplex zone are not compatible with older homes as their mass and scale overshadow existing ground-level residences.

The ordinance covers construction permits filed after Dec. 25 on projects that would cost more than 50 percent of a structure's current value.

In order to reduce the size of new structures, the commission more recently adopted limits in allowable living areas in relation to lot sizes, known as LAR, in the city's Residential 2 zone. The new 34 percent threshold of living space to lot size is a prudent measure to help maintain the city's character.

This stands in stark contrast with current structures in the zone; the city's preliminary figures show more than half the homes exceed the new LAR cap.

The commission should receive the land development code review next month, with action expected by May.

Last week, the issue exploded in Anna Maria as dozens of residents descended on City Hall to demand action over the proliferation of large homes and problem vacationers.

City Commissioner Chuck Webb, an attorney, notified the board that the city's comprehensive plan and zoning code already prohibits short-term rentals of less than 30 days in the city's lone residential zone. The commission quickly passed a motion that requires officials to enforce the code, but on Tuesday night at another crowded meeting the panel rescinded that action in order to investigate potential pitfalls.

The city's lax enforcement of the 30-day rental rule could be a legal stumbling block, potentially sparking a lawsuit by vacation home investors. At last week's commission meeting, an attorney for property owners mentioned a costly lawsuit against the City of Venice over a ban on short-term rentals in residential zones.

Appropriately, Anna Maria is now approaching this cautiously. The Florida League of Cities should be able to provide advice from its stable of legal advocates who are knowledgeable about state and federal court cases that apply to municipalities.

The city is also working on zoning code change that would link the number of off-street parking spaces required on a property to the number of bedrooms in the home so large residences would not cause parking problems in neighborhoods. This simple measure does not address the major issue -- mansions amid small homes. Anna Maria might find inspiration in the Holmes Beach LAR ordinance.

The tourism industry is Manatee County's prime economic engine, and Anna Maria Island is the crown jewel. The authentic Old Florida atmosphere on the island attracts people from around the globe.

Lacking the towering hotels and condo buildings on many of Florida's islands and beaches, Anna Maria Island should preserve its unique look while also embracing visitors. Holmes Beach is on the right track by downsizing new construction with LAR restrictions while still allowing opportunities for vacation investments.

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