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St. Pete Beach carefully considers limiting votes on comprehensive plan changes

ST. PETE BEACH — The idea to exempt minor comprehensive plan changes from required voter approval seemed logical and financially practical, especially since special elections can cost $20,000.

But this is St. Pete Beach, and anything that touches development issues is never a small deal.

That truth again became crystal clear Thursday as the City Commission quickly backed away from a decision to change the city's charter to restrict voter involvement in comprehensive plan changes.

Instead, the commission decided to take up the proposal in a June 30 workshop.

"We are not looking at taking anybody's right to vote," stressed Commissioner Beverly Garnett, who originally proposed streamlining the charter-required voter referendum process.

"It is incredibly important to get this right," Garnett said, as she proposed a workshop to discuss exactly how the city would define which issues would require voter approval and which would not.

The issue is that state law requires small changes to the city's comprehensive plan, sometimes yearly.

These changes do not affect core issues such as building height, density or land-use designations.

For example, last November, St. Pete Beach voters approved a state-required update to the city's five-year capital improvements program and spending plan, even though no projects were listed in the coming year's capital improvements program.

Without such state-mandated changes being exempted from the city charter requirement for voter approval, a similar vote will have to be held again this November and in each subsequent year.

Former Commissioner Linda Chaney, now a member of the city's planning board, warned the commission to be "very careful" in changing the city's charter.

As a member of the antidevelopment organization, Citizens for Responsible Growth, Chaney fought several years ago to get the city charter changed to require voter approval for proposed changes to development regulations.

"The charter is the Constitution of St. Pete Beach and should not be changed lightly or quickly," she told the commission.

Although she agrees that minor issues, such as state-mandated changes, should be exempted from that requirement, she argued that the proposed relaxation of the voter-approval requirement contains a loophole that could remove the right of voters to weigh in on height or density issues.

"Make no mistake, this is very important to people. Be very careful how you write this," Chaney warned.

At least one of the city's attorneys seems to agree.

In an e-mail exchange with City Manager Mike Bonfield, City Attorney Suzanne Van Wyk said defining what kinds of changes would be exempted from the voter approval rule is "tricky."

"We need to be very clear about what we are targeting," Van Wyk said, as she "strongly" recommended that "remedial plan amendments" be exempted from referendum approval.

"The more input we get, the more discussion, the better," said Commissioner Jim Parent after the commission opted to delay voting on the issue.

St. Pete Beach carefully considers limiting votes on comprehensive plan changes 06/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 4:31am]
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