ST. PETE BEACH — A voter-approved comprehensive plan — the legal guide for all development and redevelopment within the city — has been declared invalid.
Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court Judge David Demers ruled against the city Wednesday in a long and bitterly fought case.
The case, along with others pending, mirrors much of the recent debate over a state constitutional amendment that would have required voter approval of local comprehensive land use plans. Called "Hometown Democracy" by its supporters, Amendment 4 was defeated by voters in November.
St. Pete Beach has spent nearly a half million dollars in legal fees so far to fight the suits against it. Now it appears the city may be forced to spend even more to reimburse resident Bill Pyle for the costs he incurred in fighting the development regulations approved by voters in 2008.
His attorney, Ken Weiss, said Sunday those fees are "well in excess of $100,000" but "a fraction" of what the city has spent.
"Yikes," said St. Pete Beach Mayor Mike Finnerty. "This is truly an unfortunate situation for St. Pete Beach. The city is in dire need of redevelopment. I don't know where this ruling puts us."
The ruling involves four ordinances approved by voters that changed the comprehensive plan, particularly as it applies to redevelopment of the aging hotel row along Gulf Boulevard.
Demers found the referendum ballot summaries did not meet requirements of state law or the City Charter.
"Obviously, I am gratified with the judge's decision, which was elegant and decisive. If I had been on the other side, I would be less pleased," Pyle said.
He asserted voters were deceived about the real impact of the 2008 comprehensive plan changes. The judge agreed.
"Plaintiff is right. The ordinance misleads voters," the judge ruled, describing one ballot summary as "wordsmithing" and another as "illusory."
The amended comprehensive plan initially was drafted by Save Our Little Village (SOLV), a pro-hotel group that subsequently joined the city in fighting Pyle's attempts to reverse the referendum's results.
There are other suits involving other aspects of the comprehensive plan pending against the city filed by residents Bruce Kadura and Richard McCormick.
Those suits are also before Demers and a ruling on them is expected by the end of the year.
Finnerty said the court ruling and its implications will be discussed at the next regular City Commission meeting Dec. 14, or possibly before if a special workshop is called.
Weiss described the judge's decision as a "vindication."
"All the city and SOLV had to do was tell the citizens the truth. But they hid the real issue — that the proposed comprehensive plan increased height and density on the beach for hotel owners," he said.