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Legal questions over development persist after St. Pete Beach election

ST. PETE BEACH — The election is over and voters have picked a winning side in the city's years-long battle over development.

With a new mayor to be sworn in Tuesday and a super majority of pro-development commissioners armed with the power to set development rules, many residents hope the city's economic stagnation is over.

"One more time, the people have spoken. The war needs to end. I am looking forward to something very positive happening," Lorraine Huhn, a leading proponent of redevelopment of the city's beachfront hotels, said Thursday.

But the legal wrangling is not over and the losing side is far from ready to quietly accept its loss.

Both the mayoral runoff last week and the March referendum changing the city's charter were close votes, indicating a lingering reservoir of dissent.

Voters' willingness to give up their Hometown Democracy-style right to vote on changes to height and density regulations is a good thing, according to runoff winner Steve McFarlin.

"We shall move forward now," he said. "This city is in the tourism industry and we need to make use of it so that both business and residents gain."

Once he is sworn into office, McFarlin said his first task will be to propose the creation of a new board — what he calls the Economic Redevelopment Council — that would open communication lines between residents and business owners to better define the best kind of development for the city.

"We have to get a love affair going back between the residents and our tourist industry," he said. "Our community has become outdated. Our hotels need to offer the kind of accommodations people now expect when they travel."

To that end, McFarlin's other top priority is implementation of the city's comprehensive plan, which has been tied up in court battles since it was approved by voters in 2008.

"I am confident that the comprehensive plan will bring investment back to the beach," he added.

That belief is exactly what worries opponents who fear that if the plan is fully implemented the city's character will be forever changed.

"You will see consolidation of the power of the hotels and the City Commission getting even stronger than before," warned Bruce Kadoura, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in March and endorsed incumbent mayor, Mike Finnerty, who lost by 176 votes to McFarlin in the runoff.

Kadoura also has repeatedly sued the city to stop implementation of the comprehensive plan.

"It's a bad situation, but as far as I am concerned it's over. We won the litigation, but we lost the war. There could still be legal challenges, but it's not going to be from me. I'm done," he said.

But his attorney, Ken Weiss, who also represents resident Bill Pyle and others who have sued the city over the 2008 comprehensive plan, is not ready to quit.

"Until the commission recognizes the flaws in this plan and does something about it, it won't be over.

"When the city starts complying with the law, the litigation will stop. They can buy the election, but they can't buy the court system. My clients firmly believe that eventually justice will prevail," Weiss said Thursday.

Pyle declined to comment, citing pending legal actions with the city.

Commissioner Marvin Shavlan was not so reticent.

"Ken just tries to muck everything up," Shavlan said.

When asked if the commission's decision to put the charter changes on the ballot in March was geared toward enabling implementation of the city's comprehensive plan, Shavlan agreed.

"We did. Now we need to get all the legal hurdles out of the way," Shavlan said.

Commissioners will meet with their attorneys in closed session Thursday, presumably to discuss how the continuing lawsuits affect implementation of the comprehensive plan.

The ordinance establishing the plan was originally approved by voters, but that referendum was invalidated by the court because of defective ballot language.

Now that voters repealed the charter requirement for any referendum on comprehensive plans, the city is unsure how to proceed.

This month, State Attorney General Pam Bondi declined the city's request to issue an opinion on whether it has the authority to ratify the ordinance on its own.

Bondi said any comment would be "premature" since the matter is still in litigation.

"We are not quite sure what to do," said Commissioner Al Halpern. "It has to be done right and we want to get there as quick as we can." He said he hopes the city's larger hotels can be rebuilt to include a "destination convention center."

Shavlan and McFarlin agreed.

While the city "cannot afford any more litigation" it must "get redevelopment going as soon as possible," the mayor-elect said.

Shavlan was optimistic. "We have a very strong commission up there now and it's going to be very good for St. Pete Beach," he said.

Legal questions over development persist after St. Pete Beach election 04/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 4:31am]
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