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Published: Thursday, 5/10/2007

Island in the sun

A TOURIST alighting from a ferry at Lake Erie's South Bass Island doesn't have to look very far to find a T-shirt with a clever play on words: "Put-in-Bay, a drinking village with a fishing problem."

It's a funny line and it never fails to generate a chuckle. But Put-in-Bay's plans for a dramatic expansion of the Boardwalk Restaurant, a new conference and banquet center, an amusement park, and even a bar masquerading as a pirate ship, suggest that the island's effort to upgrade its image may be slightly out of control.

For the entrepreneurs who own businesses there, seasonal tourism keeps the children fed, and island officials have been aggressively trying to get back the visitor trade that diminished after a contaminated water scare a few years ago.

But where are the architectural controls, the brakes on development that could threaten the very change the island is trying to achieve?

Put-in-Bay has long had a reputation as the Key West of the Great Lakes, a designation cultivated by non-stop partying on summer weekends and by the North Coast's best known entertainer, troubadour Pat Dailey, who doesn't like comparisons to Jimmy Buffett but can't escape them.

However, there is a difference, too. Key West, at the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys, remains a fun and funky place, one that has its share of touristy schlock shops but one which has not allowed architectural monstrosities to ruin Duval Street, its main thoroughfare.

We can't help but contrast the sense that anything goes at Put-in-Bay, and for that matter, throughout much of Ohio, with the careful and almost excessive planning that restricts development along California's coast.

Here in Toledo, look at the runaway commercial mess that Monroe Street has become west of Secor Road. It's a hodge-podge duplicated in many Ohio towns large and small.

In California, on the other hand, anybody with designs on erecting a structure, or anything else, within the Pacific Coast "coastal zone" had better be prepared to invest large sums of money and lots of time tiptoeing through the minefield that the permit process has become since the passage in 1972 of Proposition 20 and the creation of the California Coastal Commission.

The coastal zone, which covers an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, including sea and land, can extend inland as far as five miles.

It's a pain for developers, but look at the result. Development along Central California's Big Sur coast, for example, is so tightly controlled that one of the world's most beautiful drives is unsullied by the visual signs of commercialization.

We don't begrudge the business owners of Put-in-Bay a living. But it's regrettable that on this once charming island with its Victorian homes, and across much of Ohio, planners just never seem to be able to say no.

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