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Proposed St. Pete Beach advisory panel snags settlement of development lawsuits

ST. PETE BEACH — Disagreement over a proposed advisory committee is holding up settlement of six development-related lawsuits that to date have cost the city nearly $300,000.

City commissioners are reacting to "considerable negative public comment," according to City Manager Mike Bonfield, over how the members of the proposed Bridge to the Future Committee would be chosen.

Particularly at issue is the demand by residents suing the city that the seven-member committee be made up of three members appointed by plaintiffs William Pyle, Bruce Kadura and Richard McCormick; three members by citizen's group Save Our Little Village; and one member appointed by the City Commission.

"This method of selecting a board is wholly inconsistent with how our other charter boards are formed and is not acceptable to the City Commission," Bonfield said.

After meeting Monday night in closed session with city attorneys, the City Commission decided instead to propose a nine-member committee that would also give the commission three appointees.

That proposal — with the stipulation that the "offer" would end at noon Friday — was forwarded to Ken Weiss, attorney for the plaintiffs, Tuesday.

Weiss acknowledged receiving the settlement offer, but he declined to comment.

The city's counteroffer stipulates that none of the parties to the lawsuits can be members of the committee.

If the city, SOLV and the plaintiff's can reach an agreement, the controversial Bridge committee would be tasked with advising the commission on design and other issues relating to future developments within the city.

Bonfield said the city's version of the Bridge to the Future Blue-Ribbon Committee would serve "much the same role as previously envisioned" but stressed it would not be formally included in the city's comprehensive plan or land development code.

Ironically, the group would have no real power, except to advise the City Commission.

The character of future development projects was the focus of the lawsuits filed against the city and SOLV in an effort to halt implementation of the city's comprehensive plan. That plan was proposed by SOLV and approved by voters last year.

The parties to the lawsuits met informally over the summer in an attempt to resolve the development dispute and then entered formal mediation negotiations.

Those talks fell apart several weeks ago when the parties were unable to reach an agreement. An impasse was declared.

Several settlement agreements were subsequently offered and signed, although no single agreement was signed by all parties.

At one point, the city included the originally proposed Bridge committee in one of its settlement offers, but then withdrew that offer because of negative reactions from residents.

Last Tuesday, the commission was expected to approve the settlement, but after the commission met privately with its attorneys, Bonfield announced the commission was "not prepared" to discuss any settlement.

During a later public meeting, Pyle and SOLV representatives urged the City Commission to join them in signing the settlement that included the Bridge committee.

The commission took no action until almost a week later, when it met with its attorneys Monday and drafted what it says is its "last settlement proposal."

If the proposal is accepted, Bonfield said the City Commission will sign it at its next public meeting, on Nov. 30.

Voters would then be asked to ratify the settlement's changes to the city's comprehensive plan in a citywide referendum in March.

If there is no agreement, the city's legal bills will continue to mount on the six lawsuits.

"This is the City's last settlement proposal and they plan to go forward with litigation if this is unsatisfactory to your client," Heidi Truitt Campbell, a spokesperson for the city's legal firm, said in an e-mail to Weiss on Tuesday.

Proposed St. Pete Beach advisory panel snags settlement of development lawsuits 11/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 5:39pm]
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