Valdes to Dixon: “There’s crap and then there’s crap”


Historic City News editor, Michael Gold, propped his eyes open for a lengthy Planning and Zoning Board meeting in the Alcazar Room at City Hall this week; one that went on for about two-hours longer than necessary, while applicants paraded to the podium to express their support or criticism for what their neighbors wanted to do with their property.

The snore fest began at 2:00 p.m., but you had to be tough enough to stick it out until the very last item on the agenda if you wanted to see any action.

Planner Karen Taylor and architect Les Thomas introduced the proposed multi-million dollar investment in the Santa Maria Restaurant property which extends beyond the newly rebuilt seawall into the Matanzas Bay, south of the Municipal Marina. Subject to permitting, approvals, zoning, HARB, and a sense that he will be able to build, what he wants, where he wants, Pat Croce has offered to purchase the property.

1407010847Croce attended the meeting yesterday, and spoke to the Board, as did one of Taylor’s planners who had produced the six-iterations of proposed layouts made controversial by the proposed addition of dock spaces eastward into the bay. Members of the public spoke in opposition, and some, like Frank Usina, expressed support for the idea — but harbored reservations over various technical issues; primarily related to safety.

On the Board, some members who heard the presentation and comments, showed their hand — either for or against, even though the only decision that was reached last night was to continue the item until the next meeting.

Naturally, Croce wants to do the deal and at least half of the Board want to see him do it. The Santa Maria Restaurant does not enjoy the best reputation with local diners, they try to make up in ambiance what they lack in popularity. It is a unique property, the last privately owned platted lot over the river. The current owners have been there 50 years and much of the current building codes simply could not be applied to the existing structure. The problem is that in order to be “grandfathered” in, there will be very little if any exterior remodeling allowed — certainly no new construction or additions.

There was considerable discussion if even the art-deco period, open-faced channel letter, double-stroke neon sign atop the restaurant could be changed; and, if Croce intended to use gangway signage like his Key West restaurant that depicts a scantily-clad woman. Chairman Sue Agresta, who distributed photographs of the offensive sign, said that kind of image would not fit into the vision of St Augustine in the future.

The two strongest objections to the development seem to center around how Croce will use the power of a proposed PUD; which, as Board member Jerry Dixon described, is simply the latest popular means to get around the city’s zoning regulations. Dixon pointed to the controversy recently following Flagler College and their use of PUD zoning to construct the new communications facilities at Cordova and Cuna Streets.

The restaurant provides no parking for patrons. Unless grandfathered, they would be required under new permitting, to arrange for parking either with a neighbor or through a shuttle. Taylor pointed out that HD zoning on the west side of Avenida Menendez allows for “zero lot line” construction without parking provisions — however, the subject property is zoned “Open Land”.

To add insult to injury, in order to obtain the liquor license needed, Croce will have to provide an open kitchen with food service available at all times that liquor is available, he must increase seating to 150, he wants 160, and provide other enhanced accommodations.

Dixon asked how that could so since the restaurant currently has a liquor license. That was when it was revealed that the current liquor license is not being sold with the property. The intensification of use, capacity, foot traffic, and boat traffic through the boat slips to be added, are all bones of contention.

1407010895Board member David Toner was particularly interested in Usina’s testimony. Frank, whose grandfather began their commercial passenger boat business, told Historic City News that, after 50-years of service, he has retired his captain’s license. His son, Ken, now operates the sightseeing tours which have survived more than 100-years along the Matanzas River. The Usina’s are concerned for the maneuvering necessary to pilot their vessel into their slip in the municipal marina. They say tightening the entrance to 90-95′ won’t be a problem in good weather, but increased boat and personal watercraft darting in and out of the new restaurant, particularly if they are inexperienced or have been drinking, could be a problem. Strong currents, rough seas, and wind will all add to the potential hazard.

Gunnar Hedqwist, owner of the Black Raven, his captains Bruce Milliken and William LeClere, and coordinator, Paula Denaro, each gave testimony about the impact the new restaurant design will have on their business and increased risk for collision. “You can’t just stop a 50-ton vessel on a dime,” Milliken said. Denaro used her time to present a video, taken from aboard the Black Raven, showing how tricky and precise the approach must be accomplished, pointing out that they only have 18″ clearance on each side of the vessel.

When the discussion came back to the Board, Dixon reiterated a growing list of zoning exceptions and variances he sees necessary to approve the application, and, although they could be accomplished with PUD zoning, his continued reluctance to approve what he refers to as “spot zoning”.

“People come in with one thing in mind and we approve it, then they come back and want to add more crap,” Dixon explained; triggering an abrupt response from John Valdes.

“There’s crap and then there’s crap,” Valdes fired back. “This crap is already here.”

Valdes went on to make the point that all the arguments and picking apart of the application for PUD zoning and how if possible this project can be approved, was a waste of time. Valdes said that it comes down to whether you want some new life in a worn out building, and coming to a solution. Valdes, who is running for a seat on the St Augustine City Commission, told Karen Taylor that she needs to take the application to HARB, as already scheduled, and then come back to PZB once she and her client are further along.

The application was continued on a unanimous vote of the Board and the meeting adjourned.

Photo credits: © 2014 Historic City News staff photographer