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Conch House project going forwardOwner withdrew PUD application, will build without city approvalBy KATI BEXLEY | More by this reporter | firstname.lastname@example.org | Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 ; Updated: 1:32 AM on Tuesday, October 28, 2008 City commissioners looked shocked and the public gasped Monday when the Conch House owner let it be known he would no longer play ball with the city. Property owner David Ponce's attorney Ellen Avery-Smith read a letter from Ponce and Michael Seymour, his partner, to the commission Monday stating they withdrew their PUD application and will now build the project however they want. Avery-Smith said Ponce had bounced the Conch House redevelopment project back and forth from city boards and public meetings and amended it each time in an effort to make everyone happy. But in September, when the City Commission was split on the project with most leaning toward opposing it, the board told Ponce to once again make major changes to the redevelopment. On Monday, it seemed he had had enough. Ponce was not at the meeting. Mark Knight, city planning and building, said Ponce could go ahead with much of his redevelopment plans without the commission's approval because the area's zoning allows it. Ponce could build condominiums and a 30-unit hotel with a banquet room. Ponce had asked the commission to grant him a Planned Unit Development for a trio of three-story condominium buildings of 32, 20 and 12 rooms staggered along Comares Avenue. The middle one would have served as both a condo and a hotel. The project also included renovating the existing Conch House Restaurant and adding a new marina restaurant and a bar with 177 seats. Neither the commission nor the public spoke on the issue after Avery-Smith finished the letter. City Hall was filled with residents interested in hearing the outcome of the project. Mayor Joe Boles only asked, "Is there anything for us to vote on?" City Manager Bill Harriss answered, "No, there's nothing you can do." Ponce and Seymour's letter said they had spent 15 hours at one community meeting to work with the Davis Shores neighborhood that surrounds the Conch House and Ponce met with the Planning and Zoning Board three times, which unanimously recommended the Commission approve the project. "In the past, the city has never gone against a city board," Avery-Smith said, quoting the developers' letter. Planning and Zoning board member Jerry Dixon, who attended the meeting Monday, said the board had worked hard on the project with Ponce and the city missed a good thing. He said the Conch House is one of the last developments in the county that allows public access to the water, including jet ski and boat rentals, charter fishing fleets, a large marina and a dock. That will all become privatized now, he said. "We worked to make sure that stayed open to the public. In the PUD, that was locked in," he said. "It would have stayed that way forever." The public and the City Commission opposed the project's convention center, where Ponce wanted to hold parties such as weddings. Commissioners said this would disturb the neighborhood. They wanted Ponce to take it out of the project. Ponce had decided to build the convention center because the Planning and Zoning Board and the public wanted Reggae Sunday, a seasonal weekly drinking event, to end. Ponce said the convention center would replace the lost revenue from stopping the popular event. The Commission and some of the public also were against the buildings proposed height, which would have been four feet taller than the condominium next door to it. Dixon said he thought it was a fair compromise and there was give and take between the city and Ponce. He said the city lost its opportunity and Ponce no longer has to do what is in the best interest of the public. "The public's going to lose on this," he said. "Be careful what you wish for."