Four years after St. Pete Beach voters approved a redevelopment plan allowing larger hotels to be built, a judge has rejected opponents' latest legal challenge.
Judge David Demers of the Sixth Circuit Court ruled Monday that the City Commission had not operated in secrecy in violation of the Sunshine Law — Florida's public meetings law — as opponents' lawsuit had claimed. Demers also upheld the constitutionality of a state law that permitted the city to approve its development plan after the original referendum question had been invalidated.
The ruling is a victory for the City Commission, which has faced yearslong legal battles over redevelopment from a small but determined group of residents. The city lost some of those fights, including a suit charging that the referendum question put before voters in 2008 had misleading language. Others it settled or won. The suit that the judge decided on Monday represents the last of its pending lawsuits.
Fighting the lawsuits has cost the city more than $1.5 million in legal fees over the past seven years. This last case alone has cost $345,000 to date.
But the verdict may not bring closure. After Judge Demers' ruling, attorney Ken Weiss said he would appeal and vowed to take the case as far as the Florida Supreme Court. Weiss has also filed a motion claiming that the city's lawyers lied about how many public hearings were held to discuss the development plan and how many times the residents have sued them over it.
Behind the group's many lawsuits is the fear that the city's development plans will lead to "condo canyons" and the kind of anonymous, tacky architecture that has stamped out Old Florida beach town charm in other parts of the state. In an interview Monday, Weiss said the group is also concerned about who will bear the brunt of the costs for the roads and sewers that will have to be constructed or upgraded to handle the arrival of more tourists.
"Height, of course, is an issue. Density is an issue," Weiss said. "The reality of it is the city just can't absorb 5,000 more units on Gulf Boulevard without extensive inconvenience to the citizens, without extensive costs to the citizens, and with the question mark of who's going to pay for it."
City officials counter that without infrastructure improvements and allowances for greater building height and density, St. Pete Beach's aging hotels and motels will suffer further decline. The city, which has some of the most popular beaches in the county, depends heavily on tourism for tax revenue.
The saga began in 2005, when a majority of St. Pete Beach residents voted to require the commission to put to referendum any changes in building height or density.
Three years later, they approved an amended version of the "comprehensive plan," which would have altered land use regulations and increased building sizes. Opposition and lawsuits swiftly followed. The 2008 plan was eventually declared invalid.
In 2011, St. Pete Beach voters returned to the polls and repealed the 2005 statute. That step, as well as a state law the city lobbied to get passed, allowed the commission to reapprove the plan. In its current iteration, it allows for certain hotels and resorts to be built to a maximum of 146 feet, or about 12 stories. Previously, hotels could not be built more than 50 feet above base floor elevation.
Elected in 2011, St. Pete Beach Mayor Steve McFarlin said he has watched as prospective developers tiptoe up to the edge of buying hotels that have fallen into disrepair and turning them around. But the seemingly never-ending legal disputes and uncertainty over land use regulations have deterred them, he said.
"This plan has been tied up roughly five or six years," McFarlin said. "We've lost many a contract on some of the old hotels to rebuild because nobody is willing to invest that kind of money with that kind of risk."
But these "suitors," as McFarlin calls potential developers, have not been entirely dissuaded. Recently, he said, there is reason to hope that a major hotel chain is interested in the Coral Reef Hotel at 5800 Gulf Blvd. Built in 1963, it sits on prime real estate but was condemned by the city in 2004 and has been shuttered ever since.
"They are ready to go with something," McFarlin said.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected]