Editor's Note: This story was updated to show that Crystal River staff did not recommend the approval of the development's latest variance requests.
With a narrow vote during a tense hearing, Crystal River’s building board denied a developer’s specialized requests for their proposed high-rise hotel on an empty waterfront lot along the city’s main thoroughfare.
Citizen members of the city’s planning commission voted 4-3 at its Thursday evening meeting to reject Bent Twig, LLC’s application for five variances to build a 55-unit, five-story boutique hotel and 2,450-square-foot, ground-floor restaurant on 300 S. U.S. 19.
Bent Twig was asking commissioners to: reduce the required landscape buffer around its land; decrease the waterfront setback to build a pool 10 feet from shore; and lower the number of minimum parking spots from 94 to 75, and make the spaces smaller.
Commission Chairman Robert Froehling, who led the vote to oppose the variances, said the building’s size and design, and ratio of rooms to parking, doesn’t fit the openness, accessibility and style the city wants when people explore its downtown along King’s Bay.
“It’s a little bit much,” he said. “That’s a lot of structure and not a lot of parking.”
Steve Spencer, Bent Twig partner and president of Spencer and Associates Architecture, and his project engineer, Housh Ghovaee, said the variance requests were made under the recommendations of the city’s planning and development director, Brian Herrmann.
“We met the goals and objectives of the city through Brian’s vision,” said Ghovaee, CEO of Northside Engineering, Inc. in Clearwater.
Hampton Family Trust, LLC, a trust controlled by former major league pitcher Mike Hampton, owns the 1.35-acre property in question.
Partners of Bent Twig agreed with the Hampton trust to finalize a development plan for the property in exchange for its purchase, according to Herrmann.
Spencer said he’s trying to have Wyndham manage the condominium hotel, and told commissioners the hospitality company won’t agree to having less than 55 units and other construction conditions.
Bent Twig is also planning to construct a single-story retail building and additional parking on a 0.40-acre triangle plot across from Northwest Sixth Street.
Spencer told commissioners he’s tried to cooperate with Herrmann and city staff since early October over a site plan that included the variances and a walkway that split the lot, allowing people to walk freely between Northwest Sixth Street and the city’s future Riverwalk.
Spencer said that design was the city’s compromise for allowing a smaller parking lot, and he’s now considering removing the pathway from plans altogether if city staff won’t work with him.
“We’re not obligated to have access to the Riverwalk,” he said. “I just don’t understand why we’re having this difficulty … we’re losing parking spaces and creating more green space, and now, we’re getting penalized for not having enough parking.”
Spencer said he’s tired of the back-and-forth, and could still follow through on his project without asking for variances.
He said his proposed site plan and structure — except for the pool setback — conform to city code when it comes to the building’s height limit of 55 feet and its surface ratio on the lot.
“We can meet code without going in front of you,” Spencer told commissioners, “but we’re trying to do something to help the city.”
Herrmann implored commissioners in his staff presentation Thursday to consider how the variances would entice pedestrians from the neighboring city Riverwalk and walkways, and incorporate more landscaping into the lot, rather than carpet it with unappealing asphalt.
“If we just put up a building … and there’s nothing redeeming to pedestrians, we’re creating the same old style,” Herrmann said about the reasoning behind city codes. “The intent … gives deference to pedestrians, not vehicles.”
In this case, city staff did not recommend the approval of the variances, according to Herrmann's report.
Herrmann told commissioners he was awaiting Bent Twig’s latest design and elevation plans since Oct. 24, when the commission tabled the first variance hearing.
Until he gets those documents, Herrmann said he can’t tell if the hotel project meets code, but said the hotel’s height should be acceptable.
Referring to recent phone calls and emails with Herrmann updating him of their project, Spencer and Ghovaee said they were surprised to hear Herrmann say he had yet to get their schematics.
They also expected a smooth vote Thursday in favor of their variances because they believed that’s what the city wanted.
“I had no concerns because I felt that we provided something that (Herrmann) really likes,” Ghovaee said.
Froehling asked Spencer before his testimony Thursday to apologize to Herrmann for being “rude” when discussing the project in a phone conversation.
“You’re bullying our director, you’re bullying this commission … and you’re bullying the city of Crystal River,” he said.
Spencer said he won’t apologize to somebody who tells him one thing but means another.
“(Herrmann) has been talking out of both sides of his mouth,” he said. “Everybody has two sides of the story, and I’m not apologizing to anyone or anybody else.”
Ghovaee said he will continue working with Herrmann to make the project happen.
“This project is a catalyst to this city, and a lot of investors are looking to come to this city and develop,” he told commissioners. “This project fits your town.”