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St. Pete Beach vote goes forth with full ballot

ST. PETE BEACH — Tuesday's election will go on as originally scheduled with a full ballot of six referendum questions, some which would significantly affect future development in this beach community.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge David A. Demers refused Thursday to pull four controversial questions from the ballot, ruling that stopping the election "would create confusion and disorder" and could "generate uncertainty and distrust among voters."

The ruling followed a three-hour court hearing Wednesday where attorneys argued for and against a challenge to the wording of the ballot questions filed on behalf of William Pyle, a major financial supporter of the political action group Citizens for Responsible Growth, which is opposed to the proposed changes to the city's land-use plan.

Arguing against Pyle's lawsuit were attorneys for the city, the supervisor of elections and Save Our Little Village, the organization whose successful petition drive forced the referendum election.

The city's attorney, David Miller, argued primarily on procedural grounds that Pyle's attorneys had no legal basis to challenge the election.

Judge Patrick Cadell, who serves as chairman of the county's election canvassing board, testified that there was not enough time to change the ballot before Tuesday's election.

SOLV attorney Robert Lincoln argued that his organization and the city had mounted an "intense" campaign to educate voters about the proposed changes to development regulations.

Ken Weiss, Pyle's attorney, repeatedly argued that the ballot summaries were misleading and factually wrong.

Weiss said SOLV had "hidden everything" on the ballot question summaries.

"This (redevelopment) is probably the most important issue to hit St. Pete Beach in the last 10 years," Weiss said. "This (ballot) is an abuse of our electoral system. If it's not a crime, it should be."

Lincoln said Weiss' comments were "hugely unfair," and he "assured" the court that SOLV had "no intent to hide the ball" on any of the ballot questions.

"The crime here would be to prevent this election from going on," Lincoln said. "The people of St. Pete Beach deserve the opportunity to tell the community and everybody else what they want."

In Tuesday's referendum election, voters will be asked to vote "yes" or "no" on six questions.

The first two are primarily procedural and would ensure that the city's comprehensive plan complies with state law.

The four remaining questions, if approved, would require the commission to pass and implement new rules affecting future development in the city.

The proposed ordinances would amend:

• The city comprehensive plan, creating a community redevelopment district.

• The large-resort section of the city's land development code.

• The city's general standards for redevelopment.

• The Town Center core development regulations.

SOLV says the new regulations would increase tourism, set a maximum of 12 stories for hotels in the city's large-resort district while retaining current height restrictions in residential areas, and restrict the conversion of hotels to residential condos.

Pyle's lawsuit contended that the new rules would result in a "drastic increase" in building heights in some areas of the city, "from 50 feet to 146 feet, and increase density from 30 units an acre to 75 or more units an acre along the city's beaches."

Because the election is only days away, it is unlikely that any legal challenge could be mounted successfully beforehand.

Judge Demers did say in his ruling that although "there are legitimate arguments" both for and against the wording of the ballot summaries, the matter may become moot legally if voters reject the proposed SOLV ordinances.

If one or more are passed, however, the judge said Pyle or anyone else could mount a legal challenge after the election.

Weiss said Friday that he was "evaluating legal steps" to further challenge the SOLV plan.

City officials anticipate a high turnout Tuesday. Out of nearly 7,400 registered voters, more than 1,500 requested absentee ballots.

St. Pete Beach vote goes forth with full ballot 05/31/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 2, 2008 4:34pm]

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