ST. PETE BEACH — A new court ruling appears to favor the city, but a judge said he still might send voters back to the polls on the thorny matter of land use.
Since voters approved development regulations in the city's comprehensive plan in 2008, those rules, proposed by the citizens' group, Save Our Little Village, have been controversial.
Residents William Pyle and Bruce Kadoura subsequently challenged the plan in Circuit Court and before the Florida Department of Community Affairs in Tallahassee.
The city won before the DCA, but the remaining cases, including Pyle's challenge to the original ballot language, are unresolved.
Weeks of negotiations last year among city officials, SOLV, Pyle and Kadoura failed to settle the lawsuits, which have cost the city more than $300,000 so far.
On Wednesday, Circuit Judge David Demers found in favor of the city in four of seven counts in one of Kadoura's lawsuits. But he said the remaining three counts would have to be resolved at trial. No trial date has been set.
The judge rejected Kadoura's claims that the city's agreement with SOLV to present changes to the comprehensive plan to voters was a violation of an earlier court order, that the city failed to properly advertise the referendum, that the election was unconstitutional, and that it violated the state's Growth Management Act.
Commissioner Bev Garnett called the ruling "good news for the city," noting Friday that Kadoura did not win on any disputed issues.
The remaining issues to be resolved at trial are Kadoura's claim that the referendum did not meet requirements relating to voter approval for height increases, and was invalid because it was not advertised as required by state law.
Demers' ruling seemed to agree with Kadoura that a new referendum is needed because the city did not get voter approval when it changed the comprehensive plan after the original election. The changes were made at the state's request.
He stopped short of ruling in Kadoura's favor, however, because of the city's challenge to Kadoura's legal ability to sue the city. At issue is the location of Kadoura's residence in relation to boundaries of a new zoning district created by the new comprehensive plan.
Kadoura's legal standing must be resolved, Demers said, before he can rule on the need for a new election. Kadoura must show that he is personally damaged by the changes to the comprehensive plan.
"The judge was very clear that if Kadoura has standing, there will be a new election," the city's attorney, Suzanne Van Wyk, said Friday.
She plans to discuss the ruling and ongoing options, including a possible settlement with Kadoura, with the City Commission during a closed meeting in May.
Ken Weiss, the lawyer who represents Kadoura and Pyle, said Friday that his clients will make a formal offer to drop all their lawsuits if the city is willing to hold another referendum on the comprehensive plan.
"We would drop all the lawsuits as long as the new ballot language clearly states how building heights, density and zoning districts would change," Weiss said.
The first vote effectively amended the city comprehensive plan to create a community redevelopment district, establish a large resort section of the city's land development code, and change the city's general standards for redevelopment and the city's Town Center core development regulations.