A Tallahassee judge has rejected St. Petersburg's plan to redevelop 18 acres on Tierra Verde, striking a critical blow to one of the most controversial moves made by former Mayor Rick Baker.
Administrative Law Judge Bram D.E. Canter determined that the city's redevelopment plans for part of Tierra Verde, filed shortly after the city annexed it in December 2008, didn't take into account how vulnerable the barrier island is to a hurricane.
Canter noted that the only evacuation route for residents is a two-lane drawbridge to Isla del Sol. They would then have to cross two more bridges before reaching the mainland. If the city went ahead with its development plans, it would likely increase the amount of time it takes to evacuate while reducing the county's shelter capacity, Canter said.
He noted that the plan was also inconsistent with the city's overall long-term plan for growth.
Canter's ruling will be reviewed in about 45 days by Florida's Cabinet, which consists of Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. They will most likely enter an order that says the plan isn't in compliance with the state's growth management laws, said attorney Thomas Reese. Reese helped represent the Tierra Verde Community Association and frequently handles land use cases.
"It's pretty much dead right now," he said. "These findings of fact can't be ignored or reversed. I've never had the Cabinet reverse this before."
But Chief Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn said the plan to redevelop the land won't be dropped. The city is still obligated to follow the terms of the annexation agreement with the owners of the 18 acres. The area is currently occupied by several buildings, including a beauty parlor, a convenience store, a dry cleaner, a bait shop and a medical office. The agreement requires the city to initiate changes to its current zoning.
On May 21, 2009, the city adopted a plan amendment to assign land uses for the area. The city annexed this part of the island from Pinellas County just the year before.
Tierra Verde is mostly filled with homes. The changes the city proposed would have allowed for more intense development favored by the owners of the properties, one of whom was Steve Sembler, son of developer Mel Sembler.
Specifically, the proposal would have allowed 691 hotel rooms and up to 518 homes. The city's changes also threw out development standards that required new buildings to be compatible with existing structural bulk and height.
Winn, the city attorney, said city officials haven't finished reviewing Canter's recommended order. He said next week they will decide to either appeal the ruling or file another development plan for the 18 acres and hope it doesn't get rejected.
Baker couldn't be reached for comment. On the campaign trail, Mayor Bill Foster said he didn't support the Tierra Verde annexation, saying it creates enclaves. But now in office, Foster said he has no choice but to uphold the annexation agreement.
"I'll make sure the city sticks to the agreement," Foster said.
Longtime residents, who didn't want to live in the shadow of these new buildings, adamantly opposed the plan.
"How the city thought they would do this is amazing," Reese said. "The city really overreached on this."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.