ST. PETE BEACH — A new comprehensive plan put in place this month could jump-start major tourist redevelopment.
At least that is what city officials hope — and they want to be ready when that happens.
A special City Commission workshop set for Tuesday will focus on implementing the new comprehensive plan approved this month.
"We want to encourage new investment in the city, to establish an image that this is the place to invest," Mayor Steve McFarlin said Friday. "We have been held back for so long and the potential here is great."
Residents here have been fighting for years over what kind of redevelopment is best for the city.
A comprehensive plan written and promoted by a pro-hotel group was passed by voters in 2008 but quickly became the target of multiple lawsuits from residents who feared the plan would harm what they saw as the city's residential character.
Although those legal actions are still working their way through the courts, city officials believe they are now irrelevant.
The reasons are several – in March, voters repealed a charter provision that called for voter approval of any development regulations that affected building height or density.
Then the city's law firm, Bryant Miller Olive, persuaded the Florida Legislature to pass a special law that allowed the city to re-approve the 2008 comprehensive plan as a new ordinance and, most importantly, bypass normal state agency reviews.
The city attorneys argued that since the commission planned to reapprove the comprehensive plan that had already been vetted, there was no reason to require a second round of review by state agencies.
The lobbying effort was kept secret, discussed by the commission only in closed meetings with its attorneys.
"The first I heard of it was in a shade meeting. I thought it was a great idea," Commissioner Al Halpern said.
Suzanne Van Wyk, one of the city's attorneys, confirmed Friday she presented the idea to City Manager Mike Bonfield and he agreed on April 25 to authorize the $7,000 lobbying fee without bringing it to the commission for a public vote.
Under the city codes, Bonfield has the ability to spend up to $10,000 without prior approval.
Normally such an action is followed by commission ratification at the next public meeting, but that did not happen in this case.
"I got a call from Mike (Bonfield) about what they planned to do," said Commissioner Marvin Shavlan. "We are not required to share our legal strategy with the public."
During the commission's April 28 closed meeting, Van Wyk cautioned the commission not to put a new vote on the comprehensive plan on the public agenda until after the legislation passed.
"We don't want to surface it and talk about it right now … we don't want anybody that might not be aware of what's going on up there to become aware of it," Van Wyk said.
Weeks later, after the bill sponsored by State Sen. Dennis Jones was approved by the Legislature, a revote on the 2008 comprehensive plan was put on the commission's agenda and passed unanimously.
Shavlan stressed that in two city-wide elections, a majority of residents voted for the commission's progrowth agenda — first when they approved the 2008 comprehensive plan, and this spring when they repealed the referendum charter requirement for development regulations and put into office a majority pro-growth commission.
"The state Legislature allowed us to put the plan back in place. It was a fantastic legal strategy and it worked," Shavlan said.
He and other commissioners are now hoping that the newly approved comprehensive plan, as yet unencumbered by lawsuits, will encourage redevelopment. At 4 p.m. Tuesday, they will talk about how to help that process along.