Monday, October 05, 2015

SAB Mayor Andrea Samuels, too-tall hotel, focus of Bob Tis column

Smooth Sailin': Being mayor isn't always a walk on the beach
Posted: October 5, 2015 - 12:10am

Walking St. Augustine Beach in Andrea Samuels’ espadrilles might be a little tricky this week. It seems like the retired nurse from Poughkeepsie, New York, turned affable mayor of this 56-year-old city is at the center of every possible squabble as politicians plot the future with deep-pocketed hotel developers.

Some 1,903 voters, perhaps skeptical of big developments, turned out in November to approve Proposition 3, a referendum vote that called for a maximum 35-foot height limit for development. This week, many of them are scratching their heads.

Recently, those voters learned that the new owner of the lot where the old Beachfront Motel once stood is planning a 53-foot hotel. It really isn’t that complicated of a loophole. The state and federal laws say you have to start at 18 feet above sea level to avoid flooding. The Beachfront Hotel, originally built in 1974, flooded all the time. Nobody wants that again. So, one supposes, you go with the math that starts counting up from 18 to arrive at the your actual height.

Diego Ardid, the point man for this new Embassy Suites project, might have learned a few tricks building those giant beachfront skyscrapers down in Miami and over in Tampa. Ardid and his famous architect father from Spain, Jose, walked the beachfront property more than 18 months ago with County Administrator Mike Wanchick and Samuels.

I doubt getting a little leeway on the height restriction was a stretch. The Courtyard by Marriott project currently in progress across the street didn’t seem to have a struggle getting variances for “architectural outcroppings” that push that building up to 42 feet.

But big hotel opponents shouldn’t put this on Ardid, the Marriott or Samuels. The entire St. Augustine Beach Commission has been very supportive of these projects and they have chosen Samuels as their spokesperson.

It seems like it has been the mayor’s goal since she took office to spruce the Beach up a little and put some revenue from impact fees and such into the city’s bank account. It seems like everyone else on the commission is basically on board with that, too.

Except now you have the pesky handful of voters who suggest that a referendum vote should be binding or in the very least a mandate from the people.

And if all this hoopla about elections meaning next to nothing on the Beach isn’t bad enough, Samuels recently had to fend off yet another inquisition from fellow commission member Undine George, the wife of former mayor Ed George.

There are several layers to this onion, too, many to peel back today, but the most recent fray occurred when Undine got it in her bonnet that the St. Augustine Beach Civic Association should have to open up their books to a little scrutiny if they want free rent on their city-owned digs.


Most local news worth following is extremely interconnected so it is little surprise that Samuels’ husband is a head poo-bah in that civic group that is responsible for illuminating our surf and throwing other gala parties at the Beach. No surprise that Undine, an attorney, once represented the neighbor Samuels and her husband have had a nasty feud with since 2007. Personality conflicts happen in small towns. This fast-growing city still has less than 7,000 residents.

When 1,903 of those St. Augustine Beach residents got off their duff in November and voted for a maximum building height of 35 feet to be included in the City Charter, Samuels praised their efforts.

“It can be said that the charter is the constitution of the city,” Samuels told The Record after the election. “It determines how we govern ourselves as a city.”

Some people are irked with the way that Samuels conducts herself as the mayor. But you have to have a thick skin in politics. Especially if you want to get anything done.

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