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Commissioners approve density increases in John’s Pass Village

Mark Parker

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John's Pass Village, one of Pinellas County's top tourist destinations, is close to becoming an officially designated activity center. Photos: Visit St. Pete-Clearwater.

Pinellas County officials will allow John’s Pass Village, a self-billed quaint fishing community, to become an activity center with higher-density development allowances.

The 27-acre waterfront area is already home to over 100 shops, restaurants and marine-focused businesses. Over one million people visit John’s Pass annually.

Those numbers could increase significantly with the new designation, approved by county commissioners in a 6-1 vote Tuesday. The transition will also resolve a 16-year-old zoning conflict preventing the village’s multistory building owners from rebuilding after a disaster, like a hurricane or fire.

“I think what we’re doing is providing an opportunity to rebuild if there’s a problem,” said Commissioner Dave Eggers. “I would suggest that a lot of the efforts – on redevelopment of any kind – are going to be in the hands of the city.”

The conflict began in 2008 when the City of Madeira Beach increased area zoning allowances. The changes do not conform with county land use regulations.

Rodney Chatman, planning division manager for Forward Pinellas, said the issue was shelved until 2020 due to municipal staff changes and turnover. City officials then approached their county counterparts to rectify the situation.

Chatman compared intergovernmental zoning compliance to a handshake deal. He said the county lacks disciplinary actions to ensure alignment.

“This sounds a little more like a global issue of why we even do some of these things than if they’re not adhered to,” said Commissioner Charlie Justice. “This is not on the property owner and the folks that owned John’s Pass for a long time before it changed hands.”

The county has four activity center tiers, with “urban” allowing the highest density. Following Madeira Beach’s final approval, the village will become a “neighborhood” center, the lowest designation.

City officials initially sought a “community” center designation, the second-lowest category. Forward Pinellas declined that request, and the stakeholders settled on a compromise.

Madeira Beach pledged to keep the current 16 residential and 51 lodging units per acre average in John’s Pass under the new plans. However, several residents expressed concern that developers would take advantage of the changes and transform the fishing village into another resort town.

Crowds flock to the annual John’s Pass Seafood Festival, held annually in January.

The activity center allows 60 residential and 100 lodging units per acre. One public speaker said city officials issued non-compliant building permits for a decade, and the county was essentially rewarding them by doubling the allowable density.

Chatman pushed back on that assertion. He said it is “extremely unlikely” a developer could acquire the number of small parcels needed to build a “massive redevelopment” project in the area.

Commissioner Rene Flowers noted that state legislation limits local government’s authority to regulate new development. “A developer can come in and get approval without changing zoning or land use,” Chatman said. “That’s correct.”

Commissioner Janet Long, the lone “no” vote, said the village is already densely populated and susceptible to increasingly frequent and intense storms and sea-level rise. “These folks on the barrier islands are some of the most vulnerable in the entire county.

“I think it’s dangerous.”

Long and Eggers also expressed concern over traffic impacts. Chatman said the notoriously congested Gulf Boulevard typically operates at 65% capacity, an acceptable service level.

He also explained that John’s Pass building owners would lose about 75% of their rebuilding capacity after a disaster under current regulations. Long said county leadership should learn from previous mistakes.

“I think we’re getting compliance now, in arrears, so to speak,” Eggers said. “And I would suggest that residents continue to let their elected officials know what they want to accept.”

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