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Mulligans wins a round in beachside parking wars

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of October 23, 2014)

City officials and merchants all agree that on busy beach days, it’s tough to find a parking space along Ocean Drive.  But neighbors of Mulligan’s failed to convince a City Council majority Monday that the oceanfront restaurant should be forced to rip out a 3,800-square-foot outdoor dining expansion to ease congestion.

With season only weeks away and no cohesive plan in place to provide parking for hotel and restaurant employees, plus patrons, plus beachgoers and those who show up for special events – not to mention Ocean Drive shoppers – the City Council heard a three-hour appeal of a decision by the Planning and Zoning Commission to retroactively bless the dining area Mulligan’s Beach House added two years ago without seeking city approval.

Neighbors Charles Replogle and Mark Tripson of the Ocean Grill, Cathy Padgett of Veranda, Nancy Cook of the Twig shop and attorney E. Steven Lauer filed the appeal. Lauer, who introduced himself as the owner of the office building just north of the Holiday Inn, argued five points including a lack of notice to adjacent property owners, a wrong interpretation of city code, a failure to consider the rights of neighbors, and the fact that Mulligan’s actions exacerbated an already bad beachside parking problem.

He also questioned whether city officials could do anything about the ropes and signs guarding the Holiday Inn parking lot – which Petite Shop owner Laurie Connelly testified sometimes sits half-empty when there is not an empty parking space along Ocean Drive from The Village Spires all the way to Humiston Park.

“We already have a problem in Sexton Plaza and we’re adding to the parking problem,” Connelly said, noting that her father, who own’s DeDe’s shoe store, caters to a 50-something clientele, women not willing to park a block away and trek that far to shop for shoes.

Councilman Craig Fletcher and Mayor Dick Winger wanted to overturn the Planning and Zoning decision on appeal, which would have meant that the outdoor dining had to go.

Winger said he did not think the decision, or the staff’s interpretation of the code the decision was based upon, would hold up in circuit court if parties claiming to be injured took it that far.

Vice Mayor Jay Kramer and Councilwoman Amelia Graves voted to uphold the Planning and Zoning Commission’s decision to allow Mulligan’s the extra seating. Councilwoman Pilar Turner had to leave the meeting prior to the vote. With the vote tied at two yeas and two nays, the motion to overturn failed – so Mulligan’s gets to keep its seating.

Mulligan’s is located on the beach where Beachland Boulevard turns into Sexton Plaza and is attached to the Holiday Inn built on the site in the 1960s. At that time, Vero officials gave Holiday Inn developers a break on the required number of off-street parking spaces, and since then, the hotel has posted signs designed to keep beach and restaurant patrons out of its parking lot.

When Mulligan’s added seven tiki-hut tables and Adirondack chairs without first obtaining the city’s site plan approval nearly two years ago, the unsanctioned expansion became the focal point of anger over the increasing scarcity of parking along Ocean Drive.

Mulligan’s took the site plan to officials after the fact – something Councilman Fletcher said is done more often than it should be.

It didn’t come out during the proceedings, but a cloud of suspicion also hangs over the city’s treatment of Mulligan’s.  The restaurant and its owner George Hart contribute more than $12,000 annually to the city for sponsorship of recreation events, including the 4th of July fireworks display at Riverside Park.

Mulligan’s also enjoys a good rapport with city staff and that probably didn’t hurt when they were fined just $50 by code enforcement for expanding the restaurant without a permit.

At the end of the Council meeting, the conversation circled back to the prickly topic of paid parking. Padgett, who complained about seeing hotel and restaurant employees parking and walking past her Veranda shop, said the city needs to put parking meters along Ocean Drive.

“Years ago we had meters on Ocean Drive.  That would be nice,” Padgett said, prompting O’Connor to explain that electronic parking systems have replaced parking meters.  “I’ll pay for my parking system because on Saturday I don’t have any business,” Padgett said.  “On Saturday by 8 o’clock every spot on Ocean Drive is taken.”

A plan to test out a paid parking system came before the council in January, prompting a severe backlash from beachside businesses.

Graves reminded Padgett, “We brought up the meters and everybody said no.”

City officials promised to keep working on the parking issues, but also urged merchants to better control where their employees are parking.

Meanwhile, Mayor Winger and O’Connor announced that beginning Nov. 8, the city will be enforcing the two-hour weekday parking limit on Ocean Drive on Saturdays.