ST. PETE BEACH — Although voters made some big decisions Tuesday that appear to open the door to developers, they left one equally big decision undone — who will serve as the city's next mayor.
Voters whittled a field of four to two, whose supporters are already lining up along the city's longtime bitter divide over the character of future development.
The runoff election is tentatively scheduled for April 19.
The winner will lead a commission that is largely pro-development and that will now have the ability to change building height, density and development regulations without seeking the approval of voters.
Steve McFarlin, who won just over 33 percent of the vote Tuesday, will face Mayor Mike Finnerty, whose nine-vote, 25.88 percent margin barely slipped by challenger Bruce Kadoura to take second place.
"It is going to be a brand-new ball game in the city," McFarlin said Wednesday.
He said voter approval of the charter changes is the "true key" for the city moving forward to a better and more balanced economy.
"I got in by the skin of my teeth," Finnerty acknowledged, saying he hopes to attract some of the voters who supported Kadoura and fourth-place finisher Will Jacoby Jr.
McFarlin also wants some of those votes.
"I am not taking that win for granted at all," said McFarlin. "With the two of us, the people will have a clear choice."
McFarlin says he is for "a change" that will bring redevelopment back to the city.
He is often described as the "SOLV" candidate, but Save Our Little Village president Lorraine Huhn denies that the pro-development organization is officially endorsing him.
Nonetheless, McFarlin's stance regarding development puts him clearly in the SOLV camp that includes hoteliers, businesses and pro-growth residents.
In contrast, Finnerty is positioning himself as the bridge between die-hard SOLV supporters and equally vehement controlled-growth advocates, many of whom are former members of Citizens for Responsible Growth, who lost their battle Tuesday to keep voter control over development.
For those residents, Finnerty's refusal to be an advocate for either camp represents their only chance to have a voice on the new commission.
Jack Ohlhaber, who publishes a newsletter promoting smaller, more residential-friendly development policies, is swinging his support from Kadoura to Finnerty.
"Finnerty would be an excellent choice," Ohlhaber says. "We need someone who can help us find consensus. Without that we will never have peace."
Commissioner Marvin Shavlan, who publishes a blog that encouraged voters to reject the city's version of Hometown Democracy, is not taking sides in the mayor race, but he is unabashedly pleased with the results of Tuesday's election.
"It is a beautiful day in St. Pete Beach," Shavlan said the day after the election. "It's time to get those hotels to redevelop."
He said he hopes the city's development wars are ending. They began about 10 years ago when city officials promoted a plan encouraging hotels to rebuild along the beach. That prompted a backlash among residents who feared that Gulf Boulevard would become a canyon overshadowed by tall buildings.
In 2006 a CRG-sponsored referendum put voters in charge of development regulations and in particular gave them power over any changes to building heights.
Then in 2008, a SOLV-sponsored comprehensive plan more sympathetic to hoteliers was approved by voters.
Several residents have challenged that plan in court and before state regulatory agencies.
In January, a Circuit Court judge threw out the 2008 vote, again putting the city's redevelopment in limbo. Although the city is appealing the ruling, the legal case may be moot given Tuesday's election changing the city charter to rescind requirements for voter approval of comprehensive plans and redevelopment regulations.
City Manager Mike Bonfield said Wednesday the commission will soon vote to put the plan into official effect.
Still to be determined is whether the plan must first be reviewed by the city's planning board or if public hearings will have to be held.
"The vote Tuesday was very satisfying," Huhn said. "It makes the city a much more comfortable place for potential redevelopment."