ST. PETE BEACH — The city wants voters to have the chance in August to weigh in, yet again, on an ongoing legal and political controversy: How should the city be redeveloped in the future?
The City Commission decided unanimously Tuesday to ask residents to vote on a revised version of the Comprehensive Plan that was approved in a 2008 referendum. A vote on the revised plan is required by the city charter.
At issue are several minor changes the city made to the plan in response to objections from the state Department of Community Affairs, which reviews all municipal land use and comprehensive plans.
Suzanne Van Wyk, an attorney for the city, recommended that the commission schedule the vote because it will likely be required by Circuit Judge David Demers, who is presiding over a half-dozen lawsuits challenging the plan.
"The idea is to move these cases forward, to show good faith," said Van Wyk. "We won't have to litigate these issues if we put the plan on the ballot; $1,400 for an election is a lot less expensive than litigating the issue in court."
City Manager Mike Bonfield agreed, saying: "It is in the city's best interest to put this matter back before the electorate rather than expend additional taxpayer dollars to further dispute this claim through the courts."
A trial to resolve several legal challenges is scheduled for Aug. 19 and 20, just days before the scheduled Aug. 24 referendum election.
Attorney Ken Weiss, who represents some residents who filed lawsuits challenging the plan, thinks the referendum is premature. He objects to the wording on the ballot, which he says is virtually identical to the wording on the 2008 referendum ballot — one of the issues raised in Weiss' clients' lawsuits.
In May, the city rejected his offer to settle the residents' lawsuits if a new ballot question specifically stated 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.
At its meeting Tuesday, the commission considered changing the ballot language, but in the end added only a phrase indicating the Department of Community Affairs had found the plan "in compliance" with state regulations.
The approved August ballot question also refers generally to "goals, objectives, policies, permitted uses, densities, intensities and height standards that encourage commercial and temporary lodging uses" as well as green standards, public beach access, evacuation requirements and impact fees.
On Thursday, Weiss successfully sought an emergency hearing before Demers. It is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, the day before the deadline for the Supervisor of Elections to change or cancel the referendum election.
In his motion to Demers, Weiss described the city's scheduled August referendum as "an attempt to thwart" the court's previous ruling.
"The city intentionally timed this referendum so that it could avoid the Court's ruling on the ballot summary set for the trial date," Weiss wrote. The city's refusal to postpone the referendum until the November election and after the judge rules on the ballot language, Weiss said, is an attempt to mislead voters.