ST. PETE BEACH — What's next?
That is the question stunned city officials are asking in the wake of last week's development-related court ruling.
"I disagree in every possible way with the judge's ruling and am very sorry to have to say that we, the city and the residents, lost," Commissioner Bev Garnett said in an e-mail to residents. "This simply boggles my mind."
That ruling by Circuit Judge David Demers effectively tossed out a voter-approved comprehensive plan and related development regulations. The judge said the 2008 referendum ballot summaries were "misleading" to voters.
Demers' decision gave resident Bill Pyle a significant legal victory in his battle to keep the city's beachfront from becoming a wall of high-rise hotels and condominiums.
What the decision did not do was give the city clarity on what kind of development can happen in the future.
The commission planned to meet Tuesday in closed session with its attorneys, followed by an open workshop meeting to discuss the impact of the ruling, other pending cases and options for the future.
Those options include:
• Continuing to fight Pyle in court, either by filing for a rehearing before Demers or appealing his ruling.
• Accepting the ruling without appeal and going back to voters with either a revised ballot summary on the same plan or with major or minor revisions to the previously approved plan.
• Asking voters to repeal the 2006 referendum vote to put a requirement in the city charter for voter approval of any changes to building height or density regulations.
The latter option could reopen the city's development wars that in the past have pitted residents favoring a strong tourist and hotel sector against other residents who want St. Pete Beach to return to its slower-paced, small-town, residential roots.
The city is still sharply split over the future character of the city, but, according to Mayor Mike Finnerty, most are now angry that the city's Comprehensive Plan was tossed out of court.
"It is a deplorable situation. How is our city going to compete and bring tourists here?" Finnerty wondered.
He said he is against changing the city's charter, but he worries that without such a change the city will be faced with never-ending lawsuits.
"It doesn't really surprise me that the city is afraid of future lawsuits," Pyle said Tuesday, refusing to say whether he will file any new lawsuits against the city.
He urged city officials to "bury their egos" and find "reasonable options for development."
In Pyle's mind, those options begin and end with preventing the development of tall hotels along the beach.
Lorraine Huhn, who led the effort by Save Our Little Village to draft the 2008 Comprehensive Plan, called the ruling "devastating" and said SOLV is prepared to continue its support of the city.
"Without the hotel community we can't survive," she said.
Meanwhile, another resident, Bruce Kadura, is also suing the city over the comprehensive plan.
Kadura's lawsuit centers on the charge that the city's implementation of the plan violated the state law applying to growth management.
That case is still pending, with final briefs due to Demers within the next week. His ruling could come before the end of the month or sometime in January, according to Ken Weiss, who represents both Pyle and Kadura.
The impact of the multiple development-related lawsuits cannot be denied, according to City Manager Mike Bonfield.
"The proof is in the pudding," he said. "You don't see any developers coming here."
Bonfield views the city's current requirement for voter approval of Comprehensive Plan changes relating to height and density as a "dysfunctional solution" to a disagreement over development.
"When all is said and done, the majority of residents will get what they want, whatever that is," he said. "It just may take a little longer than in most communities to get there."