ST. PETE BEACH — When voters here pick a mayor on Tuesday, their choice will begin a new chapter in the city's ongoing development wars.
The two candidates, incumbent Mike Finnerty, 63, and challenger Steve McFarlin, 54, are split on the meaning of that vote.
Finnerty says the election is a re-run of the city's fractious and expensive battle over height and density of new hotels and condominiums.
That battle ended in March when voters rescinded the city's 5-year old Hometown Democracy-style charter provisions, said McFarlin, adding that he is the only candidate who can lead the city into a prosperous new century.
Finnerty says he is the only person who can find common ground between the city's two bitterly opposed factions.
In effect, the old battle lines — CRG versus SOLV — are, in fact, being drawn again.
Finnerty, who squeaked into the runoff by nine votes in the March election, just received the endorsement of former rival and third-place candidate Bruce Kadoura.
He is now receiving financial contributions from Kadoura's former supporters.
McFarlin, the frontrunner in the March election, is also leading in political contributions, garnering more than $27,000 compared to Finnerty's $9,400, according to election financial reports filed April 1.
McFarlin's contributions run the gamut of residents and business owners, including thousands of dollars from hotel interests.
For those new to St. Pete Beach politics, here are some quick facts:
• Amid fears that the city would allow 20-story buildings along the beach, Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG) proposed and won a voter referendum in 2006, giving residents the right to vote on any comprehensive plan changes affecting building height or density.
• Two years later, rival political action group, Save Our Little Village (SOLV) proposed and won voter approval for a new comprehensive plan that allowed 12-story buildings and was supported by the city's hoteliers.
• Since then, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending against lawsuits challenging the SOLV plan, which were filed by CRG supporter Bill Pyle, Kadoura and others.
• Meanwhile, voters in March repealed the CRG-sponsored charter provisions, putting the decision-power over development regulations back in the hands of the commission.
"The battle has been solved, no pun intended," McFarlin said Monday. "I do hope a lot of these differences are over."
McFarlin was an early supporter and member of SOLV, although he said he has not been active in the group for some time.
He does favor development along the beach, however, saying it is vital for the city's economic future.
"The issues of deteriorating neighborhoods should vanish with redevelopment not only on the beach, but on Corey Avenue," McFarlin said, who is endorsed by the Pinellas County Board of Realtors. "If we can get just a couple of the right franchise hotels in here, it will bring everybody back. Bringing more upscale visitors to the city is key to our growth."
Finnerty wants growth and economic development, as well, but he wants to make sure that there is no return to calls for 20-story buildings.
"Residents are afraid of rampant redevelopment that would be stamped and approved by the city, no questions asked," Finnerty said Monday. Finnerty's "solution" is for residents to "get more involved in government and in politics."
If re-elected, Finnerty said he will work to find a "middle ground" between the extremes of the city's two factions.
The two candidates are split, as well, on another issue — should the city install cameras at intersections and ticket drivers who don't stop properly at red lights?
The commission was scheduled to vote Tuesday night on an ordinance that would do just that. McFarlin opposes the ordinance, while Finnerty thinks it is a good idea.
Both men have lived in the city for more than a decade. They are both retired businessmen and have served the city — for Finnerty, as commissioner and as mayor, and McFarlin as co-chairman of the city's Board of Adjustment (he was appointed to the board by Finnerty).
Both have a vision for the city's future and both agree that re-development will lead the way. How the city gets there are the details voters will decide on Tuesday.