ST. PETE BEACH — With its $200,000 legal budget virtually depleted, the City Commission took a major step Tuesday toward settling multiple lawsuits over development regulations.
Following an hourlong private meeting with their attorneys, the commission authorized a settlement offer to Ken Weiss, who represents residents Bill Pyle, Bruce Kadoura and Richard McCormick.
"The City Commission agrees that a global settlement of all the outstanding litigation would be advantageous to all and that the parties should pursue settlement at this time," attorney Suzanne Van Wyk wrote in a letter to Weiss.
The city's settlement offer included agreeing to a new referendum election, probably in conjunction with the August primary election, that would ask voters to re-ratify changes to the city's Comprehensive Plan and development regulations.
Voters approved the changes, including the creation of a Large Resort District, in a contentious 2008 referendum election that quickly became the subject of six lawsuits.
Several weeks ago, Circuit Judge David Demers, who is handling the development-related cases, indicated that a new election would be required if Kadoura can prove he meets legal requirements to sue the city.
Following that ruling, Weiss said his clients would be willing to settle their lawsuits if the city would agree to hold a new election — and specifically state in the ballot language that a "yes" vote would mean allowing building heights in certain zoning districts to increase to 146 feet and densities to increase up to 80 units per acre.
"The Commission is not opposed to scheduling a second referendum," Van Wyk wrote to Weiss.
She said, however, that it "would not fairly inform the voters" to only include the height and density requirements for the Large Hotel District. There are 10 other character districts where height and density regulations were also changed.
The problem is the state-mandated maximum of 75 words that can be used on a ballot question to describe an issue to be decided by voters.
Instead, Van Wyk suggested the city issue a "fact sheet" that would explain the ballot question in detail.
"I am glad we are making progress toward a settlement that would resolve our litigation," Weiss said Friday, declining to directly address Van Wyk's settlement proposal.
He said he and his clients are "working on a response" to the city's settlement offer, which must be made by 5 p.m. Monday.
The City Commission will meet again with its attorneys in a closed session Thursday at 4 p.m. Van Wyk said any settlement agreement would be discussed at that meeting.
This is not the first time that the city and Weiss' clients have tried to resolve the legal dispute.
Months of negotiations to settle the multiple lawsuits failed to reach an agreement in November.
The issue at that time was the makeup of an advisory committee that became a stand-in for a long-fought political and legal battle over future development of the city.
If a settlement cannot be reached this time, the dispute over development regulations will be argued at trial beginning in August.