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Updated: 07/28/2014 02:16:03PM

Tearoom plan clears another hurdle

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Tea rooms are permitted within Frostproof residential areas under certain conditions, now that a controversial ordinance has been approved by the Frostproof City Council.

City council members voted unanimously Monday evening to approve a city-initiated land development code amendment that would permit tearooms as conditional land use within residential areas.

The ordinance change does not automatically allow for a tearoom to be opened, but it does allow an applicant now to seek a conditional use permit for one, meaning any specific plan to open such a business will still have to come before the council for approval.

The saga began several months ago as a rezoning request which would have allowed the business to open, but city leaders rejected that, ultimately agreeing to the conditional use idea.

A tearoom, as defined by the ordinance, is “a low-impact neighborhood eatery located in close proximity to major roadways while being compatible with adjacent residential properties, typically serving non-alcoholic beverages, sandwiches, and light fare.”

Tea rooms will be permitted in residential areas provided that they seat no more than 50 people and operate daily between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (with special events permitted to be scheduled up to 9 p.m.).

Although the change could be applied to applicable land anywhere in the city, the specific property on C Street near Scenic Highway is what began the process. The property contains a vacant residence which is being considered by a potential bidder, Vicky Barron, as the location for a tearoom.

Since the tearoom was first proposed, along with this ordinance, it has faced opposition from C Street residents. While they are open to a tearoom being built within their community, they do not wish to have it in their neighborhood.

One resident, Laura Manner, a stay-at-home mother who homeschools her three children, has appeared at previous meetings to voice her disapproval of both the ordinance and tearoom.

As with other C Street residents, she feels that it would pose a safety hazard, especially to her children, by drawing in traffic and potential predators.

Manner moved 10 years ago from Tampa to raise her family in a quiet rural environment, and while she is not personally opposed to the tearoom, she feels that its construction within her community would be an affront to the sole reason her family moved there.

Prior to that evening’s meeting, she researched other land use and development codes within Polk County.

Her research revealed that, while there are no definitions for “tearooms” in other city codes, there are similar definitions for “coffee houses” and “cafes,” both of which are only permitted for high residential districts rather than low residential areas such as her neighborhood.

Furthermore, such businesses are not allowed to negatively impact the safety of the residential area nor draw in traffic exceeding 20 trips per day.

Having researched other tearooms within the county, she found that all of them are commercially-zoned and set up in close proximity to I-4.

“I feel that they are successful because they are within that location,” Manner said.

When Manner called Lake Wales to inquire why the city had denied Barron’s tearoom request when it was proposed there, she was told that it was denied because it was being proposed for a residential area.

“I believe that, as this ordinance is written, that it can potentially open up a can of worms,” Manner argued. “If you allow this, what else that is not listed within the city codes can go through this process and be added?”

Another resident, Carmen Hood, shared similar concerns. While she wants to see economic development within Frostproof, she does not want it to come at the expense of her neighborhood or her family’s safety.

“We could march up a dozen citizens who don’t live on C Street to support it, but they don’t walk out of their home when their dream was to live in a residential neighborhood,” Hood said. “If we lived where there was commercial housing, I would have no right to say anything because up front I knew [this would happen], but I feel that I am being cheated all because there is a push through the city to get this one tearoom in.”

Her husband, Billy Hood, joined her in voicing his disapproval, requesting council members to consider the Golden Rule when making their decision.

“I will remind you that you represent the city and the citizens of Frostproof, and as such, I would hope that you would vote in the best interests of the citizens as a whole, not for just a few,” Hood said. Of the numerous voices opposing the tearoom, two individuals, Sharon Lawrence and Donna Dae, both acquaintances of Barron, voiced their approval of it and the ordinance.

Lawrence claimed the tearoom would help improve the street, and even though she understands the opposition to it, she felt that the positives would outweigh the negatives.

“I don’t think she [Barron] would have started this had she known she would have caused hard feelings,” Lawrence said. “This has been a dream of hers and I would like to see it [fulfilled].”

Vice Mayor Diana Biehl assured the audience that she and her fellow council members were not “on board” with the ordinance, nor that it was a “back door deal,” but that it was being brought through the public process in order to weigh all perspectives before making a decision.

She said that voting in favor of the ordinance would not necessarily be voting in favor of the proposed tearoom, and that the ordinance would only allow a venue for the tearoom to be considered as to whether or not it is an appropriate addition for the neighborhood.

“We are finding the demise of normal retail businesses, so tourist businesses are coming to charming towns as a destination for just these things,” Biehl said. “This ordinance would allow for that to happen. … Many people in Frostproof are desperately looking for economic development and economic opportunity. Our best asset is the town atmosphere and old town charm that we have.”

City Council Member Ralph Waters said he supports the ordinance because he viewed it, not as a back door for the tearoom to be built, but as a protection for the residents living within the neighborhood.

He told the residents opposed to it that, even when it is passed, there would still be future meetings to consider the proposed tearoom and for them to present their case against it.

Biehl motioned to approve the ordinance. Ralph Waters seconded the motion. The commission voted unanimously in favor of it with a vote of 4-0.

City Commissioner Martha Neher is on vacation and not present at Monday’s meeting.

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