ST. PETE BEACH — City officials are finding it very hard — and fraught with potential legal challenges — to write 75 words that ask voters to give up their right to weigh in on minor changes to the city's land development code.
The city has spent more than $240,000 this year to defend lawsuits relating to last year's 75-word referendum questions — the maximum allowed by law — again relating to the city's comprehensive plan and land development codes.
"This is a very tricky situation to get right," said Commissioner Christopher Leonard during a workshop session on Monday to discuss a referendum question proposed for the November ballot.
A charter change approved by voters in 2006 requires all comprehensive plan changes, as well as land development regulations affecting height and density, be put to voters before taking effect.
What the city wants is to not require voters to decide on minor changes to the city's comprehensive plan, including those mandated by the state.
Such required changes do not always coincide with regularly scheduled elections. When they do not, the city must spend roughly $20,000 to hold a special election.
Monday, the commission spent several hours debating just how two, 75-word referendum questions and their related charter changes should be worded.
"Many residents said they didn't want to vote on every issue that came down the pike," Commissioner Beverly Garnett said Monday. "When this was put into play, they didn't think there would be any comp plan voting except every eight, 10 years."
Instead, it has become apparent that there must be comprehensive plan changes virtually every year.
"The objective is to simplify the overall process and reduce costs," said Commissioner Jim Parent.
Dozens of residents spoke, some urging "clarity" while others urging that no change be made at all.
"Some of language is confusing. You need to write at a third- or sixth-grade level so everyone can understand," said resident Jim Anderson.
Bill Pyle, whose lawsuits have contributed to much of the city's legal bills, argued the city should not change its charter "until something much clearer comes up."
The debate will continue at today's Planning Board meeting. The commission must approve the wording by July 28 in order for the two referendum questions to appear on the November ballot.
So far, here are the questions:
• "Ordinance 2009-, amends Section 3.15 of the City Charter to require voter approval of comprehensive plan amendments except those affecting five or fewer parcels, those mandated by state law after the effective date of this amendment, or those addressing capital improvements, public infrastructure facilities, public educational facilities, coastal and conservation requirements, or intergovernmental coordination. Should Ordinance 2009- be approved?"
• "Ordinance 2009-, amends Section 3.18 City Charter to eliminate the requirement of submitting to a vote of the electors an amendment to the City Land Development Code which increases the allowable height of any structure (as defined by the Land Development Code) which amendment is required to conform the City Land Development Code to voter approved Comprehensive Plan or Comprehensive Plan Amendment. Should Ordinance 2009- be approved?"