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Candidates signal positions on development, planning

Wednesday's candidate forum revealed the potential for more of the political division that has plagued the current commission, as candidates for the two commission seats fell into two familiar categories.

The debates were centered on the ever-popular issues of development and the city's comprehensive plan, with Alan Halpern from District 1 and Christopher Leonard from District 3 favoring a new plan to bolster tourism on one side, and Deborah Edney from District 1 and Jim Anderson from District 3 favoring the status quo, on the other.

The mayoral debate, between sitting commissioners Mike Finnerty and Ed Ruttencutter, also drew familiar lines in the sand over the botched process of selecting a new city attorney and the city's hiring of a lobbyist to help draw federal funding to the community.

But questions surrounding development and the comprehensive plan submitted by the political action group Save Our Little Village via petition suggest that the next mayor of St. Pete Beach will likely take a moderate stance in the city's most heated debate.

"I think the SOLV plan is a sign of the frustration that we need to come up with a comprehensive plan on St. Pete Beach that's going to benefit the residents, that's going to benefit the hotels and everyone who lives here," Finnerty said.

Although he doesn't support the SOLV plan, Ruttencutter said, he supported the commission's decision to put the petitions through local planning agencies and eventually to a vote.

"The problem we have right now is with the larger hotels we have on the beach. If they decided to redevelop, they could not build the number of rooms they currently have, and economically I can understand why that doesn't make sense to them," Ruttencutter said, adding that allowable building density might have to be increased.

Both Edney and Anderson questioned the need for a new plan or higher density and touted the proposed Wyndham hotel, part of a large development plan for the east end of Corey Avenue, as proof that development can be profitable under the existing height and density restrictions.

"If the Wyndham can do it here, why can't everyone else?" Anderson asked during the forum.

"We have a Wyndham that is five stories and can be profitable," Edney said.

Both candidates referred to the proposed hotel in the present tense but the development has been riddled with setbacks. The commission approved the rezoning of several areas to accommodate the project on Tuesday, but the property entered foreclosure in February and is scheduled to be auctioned on March 14.

Halpern, who says he is protourism, said he would support any plan that would allow the hotels to thrive.

"I support a new development plan that would let hoteliers in the nine-tenths of a mile stretch of Gulf Boulevard rebuild, and if that's eight stories to 12 stories, whatever it is that lets hotels do this on a profitable basis," Halpern said.

Another popular topic was the political division throughout the city and current commission due to the prevalence of SOLV and rival group the Citizens for Responsible Growth.

With the exception of Anderson, who was an active CRG member, all candidates denied any allegiance to either group.

Edney was the only candidate to stray from the issues of development, tourism and political division, when she brought up the drug problem in her neighborhood.

"We have a drug problem in District 1 that's been going on (that I know of) for a decade," she said.

Nick Johnson can be reached at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or 893-8361.

Candidates signal positions on development, planning 03/01/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 1, 2008 5:01am]
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