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Cocoa Beach, Fla., determined to rein in development

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

COCOA BEACH, Fla. -- Cocoa Beach's engineers and technicians put a man on the moon and keep the space shuttle flying. But with its 1950s ranch homes and slanted-roof carports, the community near the Kennedy Space Center still looks like something out of the Sputnik era.

And that is how many residents prefer it.

Four times in the past two years, they have voted overwhelmingly to restrict development.

"Right now, we have a neat quality of life in this city," said Vice Mayor Eric Fricker. "That's why people move here. It's still a family place."

While Cocoa Beach is by no means the only Florida city to enact growth restrictions, it is unique in its citizens' doggedness to make those limits stick when challenged with lawsuits. Florida, after all, is known for its welcoming embrace of developers, high-rise condos and golf courses.

Isolated until 1950s

Cocoa Beach, population 13,000, was a sleepy, isolated community for the first half of 20th century. But the arrival of the space program at Cape Canaveral in the late 1950s brought new growth.

Many residents help launch Delta rockets and ensure the shuttles are fit for flying. The town was also the setting for the 1960s sitcom "I Dream of Jeannie," about a beautiful genie with an astronaut "master."

Cocoa Beach still consists largely of neighborhoods of retro-chic ranch homes with terrazzo kitchen floors in vivid colors such as aqua. Only a few high-rise hotels and condos have been built, among them the 296-room Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront hotel and convention center.

Supporters of the growth restrictions look with horror at the condo canyons and high-rise hotels of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach that obstruct people's view of the beach.

Last year, Cocoa Beach voters approved measures to lower the maximum height of new buildings from 85 feet to 45 feet, restrict homes or apartment buildings to 10 dwelling units per acre from 15 per acre, and limit hotels and motels to 28 units per acre from 40 units per acre.

Residents have also voted to require an unanimous decision by city commissioners to increase the height and density restrictions in the future.

In addition, the city council barred the building of hotels and motels west of Highway A1A, the main beachside thoroughfare.

'The citizens have spoken'

And the voters have elected the only Green Party member to hold office in Florida -- Fricker.

"The citizens have spoken," said Skip Fowler, Cocoa Beach's attorney. "You would have to be deaf and blind not to know what the citizens want."

At each stage, however, developers have challenged the restrictions. Vacation Beach Inc., which had plans to build a 22-unit, seven-story condominium building, won a court ruling in its favor, but the city has appealed.

Opponents of the restrictions say they infringe on property rights and will hurt tourism.

Leah Selig, executive director of the Space Coast Association of Realtors, said real estate agents were heartened by the defeat last November of Mayor Janice Scott, who was a leader in controlling growth.

"There has been a change in elective leadership and we think it's a positive step," Selig said. "You need to protect the investments that people have made."

The people of Cocoa Beach are part of a vanguard of residents across the state, from Treasure Island on the Gulf Coast to Surfside in South Florida, who are saying no to unbridled development.

"This is going on so much around the state from citizens who don't want to see Florida buried in concrete," said Mike Daughtry, a real estate investor who has fought to maintain building-height restrictions in Treasure Island, a town of about 7,500 people just north of St. Petersburg Beach.


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