By Emily J. Minor
Town officials in Briny Breezes have finally written some proposed changes for the town’s long-term development plan, and now they’re waiting to see if state planners will agree with what they’ve suggested.
The probable sticking point?
The town’s estimated population — a little something that will help decide future construction numbers if a developer ever wants to swoop in again and try to remake the town from all mobile homes to oceanfront condos or homes.
The population ranges from 150 in the summer to probably 400 to 500 in the winter, said Jerry Lower, the Planning and Zoning Board Chairman, although during spring break and Easter week it might rise briefly to around 1,000 people, he said. (Disclosure: Lower is the publisher of The Coastal Star.)
But in the state-required Evaluation and Appraisal Report approved by town officials Sept. 23, officials claim a base town population of 924 residents.
“The word density is the critical word here,” said Robert Ganger, president of the Florida Coalition for Preservation. “Everything evolves around how many people do you have in a given area?”
Ganger, whose nonprofit growth-management group follows development on the barrier island, said the town’s number is too high and town officials know it’s too high.
“It’s kind of embarrassing, because (the state) has trained planners and they’ll look at that and say, ‘Gee, that can’t be right,’ ” Ganger said.
Even board chairman Lower, who owns a Briny mobile home and lives in Ocean Ridge, said the numbers may meet resistance.
“The majority of the P&Z Board agreed to a projection that was given to us by the corporation, which is basically an estimate of the absolute peak of winter population,” he said.
And instead of getting that number through voting statistics or car registrations, considered accepted methodology, the 942 number is based more on word-of-mouth, said town attorney Jerome F. Skrandel.
Skrandel said they did it that way because “the people do not want to cooporate with something that they think is a waste of their time.”
“It’s not a head count,’’ Skrandel said. “We tried to do a head count but this is based on anecdotal evidence from the residents.”
Indeed, Skrandel said the corporation thinks the population could at times hit 1,2000.
Mobile-home towns like Briny Breezes are indeed odd in Florida these days, and deciding how they should be designed for the future is a major debate. Today, Briny’s 43 acres are zoned for only mobile homes yet sit on prime oceanfront property. Briny drew national attention when a developer offered landowners $510 million to buy the town, but the deal fell through in the summer of 2007 in part because state officials wouldn’t allow the density — or population — that the developer wanted.
Again, a numbers game.
But for years — perhaps because of the economy, perhaps for more complicated social reasons — the population of Briny Breezes has been dwindling. According to the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research, the residency of Briny Breezes has declined from 417 residents in 2008 to 411 today.
Still, because the town board has a complicated business partnership with the town’s corporate side, there was pressure to submit high population numbers, Ganger said.
As part of the original sales deal, corporation officials have an agreement with a finder to bring in another developer — and that developer will want state rules that allow higher density construction, he said.
The EAR proposal would also allow residents to replace mobile homes with the so-called Katrina Cottages or pre-fab homes. Whatever the outcome, Lower said it likely will be years — perhaps a decade or so — before any major changes come to town.
DCA officials are supposed to respond to the town within 60 days. Also in the revisions is a suggestion to allow more low-traffic commercial businesses, like a dentist, doctor’s office or coffee shop. Neither Lower nor Ganger expect resistance to that part of the plan.