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Lawsuit may affect St. Pete Beach referendum on land-use rule changes

ST. PETE BEACH — Voters here may not get a chance anytime soon to weigh in on proposed rules governing future development of the city.

Four of six questions on the June 3 referendum election ballot could be tossed if a legal challenge is upheld in court later this month.

The City Commission was scheduled to meet at noon Saturday to decide how to respond to the lawsuit filed by William Pyle. Pyle is a major financial supporter of Citizens for Responsible Growth, or CRG, a political action group that opposes proposed changes to the city's land-use plan.

The four ballot questions referenced in Pyle's lawsuit refer to changes to the city's comprehensive plan and land development regulations proposed by a different political action group, Save Our Little Village, or SOLV.

Pyle is asking the Circuit Court to issue a permanent alternative writ of mandamus, or command, striking the four ballot questions, prohibiting the counting of any absentee ballots already sent out, and forcing the rewriting of the referendum ballot summaries before they are presented to voters in any future election.

Of the more than 1,500 absentee ballots requested, about 1,000 already have been returned, according to city officials.

The city and Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark are required to respond to Pyle's lawsuit by Friday. A court hearing is scheduled for 5 p.m. May 27 at the Pinellas County Courthouse in St. Petersburg.

Pyle's lawsuit, filed by his attorney Ken Weiss, who has also represented Commissioners Linda Chaney and Harry Metz in related matters in the past, calls the ballot summaries "deceptive" and "misleading."

Chaney, apparently, agrees.

"I don't believe the ballot language clearly represents what is being put forward," she said during a commission meeting Tuesday.

Specifically, Pyle says the proposed development rules would result in a "drastic increase" in building heights in some areas of the city "from 50 feet to 146 feet and increase density from 30 units an acre to 75 or more units an acre along the City's beaches."

"There is not one mention in any ballot summary that advises the voters that a vote to approve the ordinances will result in increases in height that will almost triple the current 50-foot height limitation in effect in the city," Pyle's lawsuit states.

The ballot questions in dispute (Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6) reference changes to "goals, objectives, policies, permitted uses, densities, intensities, and height standards" in the city's comprehensive plan as well as related changes to the city's land development code.

Ironically, the June 3 election is the result of a legal battle between the city and CRG, which successfully pushed for a citywide referendum in 2006 that changed the city charter to require any changes to the city comprehensive plan must be approved by voters.

SOLV, which is taking advantage of CRG's referendum process, is opposed by CRG, which is now trying to stop the referendum.

This isn't the first and probably won't be the last time the city's development policies end up in court.

Earlier this year, SOLV filed suit against the city to force the citywide vote. The city countered with a suit calling SOLV's proposed referendum unconstitutional.

Then, in March, Circuit Judge David A. Demers ruled that the city was obligated to hold the SOLV referendum election.

The city and SOLV eventually reached a settlement to hold a special citywide election on June 3 and work together to inform the public about the proposed changes to development regulations.

The planning commission is holding a series of joint public meetings with SOLV to explain the proposed changes to land-use ordinances.

The city's Web site links to SOLV's Web site, where the full ordinances and related documents can be viewed by the public.

According to SOLV, the proposed changes to the city's comprehensive plan will make the city eligible for $10-million in county redevelopment grants, will help stop the conversion of hotels to condominiums and will restrict large resort-area building heights to no more than 12 stories.

The proposed regulations also call for enhanced beach access for residents and visitors, and set new environmental building standards.

"The new plan will increase tourism, helping local businesses and residents, without raising taxes," the SOLV site states.

Whatever the judge's final ruling on Pyle's lawsuit, it appears the June 3 referendum election will not be canceled.

Pyle is not challenging two city-proposed ballot questions that, if approved by voters, would ensure the city's comprehensive plan complies with state law.

Lawsuit may affect St. Pete Beach referendum on land-use rule changes 05/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2008 1:07pm]
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