After reversing his vote saying he was “confused” about what was taking place, Gulfport’s Ward Four councilman, Michael Fridovich, cast the swing vote against city staff’s recommendation that James DeFoe be allowed to make parking improvements to a vacant lot behind the shopping plaza that includes the Gulfport Area Chamber of Commerce, Gulfport Dive, and other small businesses.
Residents living next to the lot, including Laurie and Scott East, spoke in protest of DeFoe’s request to improve parking conditions in the lot, which currently serves as an unofficial parking lot. DeFoe sought to add fencing, landscaping and LED lights to the lot.
Laurie East and other are residents said they would rather see a home on the lot and the former owner promised to build homes there.
“We can’t force the owner of that property to build a home, is that correct?” Vice Mayor Christine Brown asked Community Development Director Fred Metcalf, who said no, the city could not dictate construction.
Brown also pointed out that the city zoned the lot to allow it to be used as a parking lot. City planners asked the council to approve the lot, but Ward One Councilmember Dan Liedtke said Metcalf didn’t give him good enough answers to Liedtke’s questions to warrant a “yes” vote.
“I have never seen, within city limits, a parking lot that is in between two homes,” Laurie East said. Liedtke dismissed the one example Metcalf gave – George’s Grill on Newton and 49th Street South.
Residents also complained about code violations, but Metcalf said many of the existing issues were criminal rather than code-related.
“The applicant has the right to ask for a parking lot there,” he said. City Manager Jim O’Reilly supported him.
“Things that are emotionally-based have to be mitigated by the applicant has due process. Of course, council can vote whichever way it likes, but we only apply this ordinance,” O’Reilly said.
Henderson said many of the issues residents raised, such as owners not cleaning up after their dogs used the lot as a bathroom, and crime, had little to do with whether or not council allowed the parking lot.
“What we’re all trying to balance up here is to not trample on his rights as a property owner…but at the same time, I’m trying to balance maintaining the integrity of your community,” Henderson said. He then asked East, “To me, this seems like an improvement. What would be the thing that could make this work for you? Because you’re unhappy with it as it is.” He also told East he had a problem asking a property owner to do anything if he wasn’t in violation of the law or the codes.
“This,” he said of the parking lot proposal, “fixes the issue.”
“It doesn’t fix the issue of the value of our homes,” East replied.
Henderson, who later said the lack of showing from anyone in support of the lot affected his decision, joined Fridovich and Liedtke in voting against the parking lot.