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St. Pete Beach vote on growth rules June 28 could make lawsuits moot

ST. PETE BEACH — With virtually no discussion, the City Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to reapprove a comprehensive plan that has been the target of multiple lawsuits for three years.

When the final of two votes on the plan is taken this month, it will mark a significant milestone in the city's fractious journey toward redevelopment.

Particularly at issue are the height and density of buildings along the city's milelong hotel row on the west side of Gulf Boulevard.

Lawsuits filed by residents opposed to intensive growth challenged the 2008 voter referendum approving the plan. They are still wending their way through the appeal court.

But if, as expected, the plan is reapproved on June 28, most of the issues being fought in court may be moot.

For a number of residents at Tuesday's commission meeting, that is good news.

"Wow. Thousands of hours and many years, lots of fights. Let's hope we can move forward in the very near future," said Rick Falkenstein.

"What can I say? One word: amen," said Lorraine Huhn, chairman of the political action group Save Our Little Village that wrote the plan and successfully petitioned for it to be presented to voters in 2008.

"Let's move on, get this city going and we will have a nice pretty city in a few years," said Rosemary Manning, a strong supporter of the embattled comprehensive plan.

But for at least one resident, the plan is seriously flawed and in need of change.

"The City Commission must consider this vote very carefully tonight," warned resident Deborah Schechner as she urged the commission to basically start over.

Schechner called for a delay to allow the plan to be opened up to extensive growth management-style hearings where people could propose changes.

Ken Weiss, the attorney for several residents who sued the city to halt implementation of the plan, asked for the same thing in a letter sent to the commission before the meeting.

"If you go through this process none of my clients will challenge the plan nor will I participate in any such challenge," Weiss wrote in the letter he said was written at the request of Bruce Kadoura, one of his clients.

Weiss said his clients worry that the existing plan will lead to overdevelopment of the beachfront, that some properties may become nonconforming, that small-business growth may be restricted, that large hotels will receive unfair development advantages, and that beach access may be lost.

Kadoura, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last spring, is still pursuing multiple lawsuits against the city challenging the plan and the election that put it into effect.

Although the city won most legal challenges to the content of the plan, it lost a case in circuit court last year when Judge David Demers invalidated the 2008 referendum election. He ruled that the ballot wording did not properly inform voters that building heights would change.

The city is appealing that ruling, but its effect may now be moot.

Another voter referendum last spring repealed charter provisions requiring voter approval of comprehensive plan changes involving height and density. After that vote, the city's attorneys sought a state attorney general opinion on how the city could put the plan into effect.

That effort was unsuccessful, but the state Legislature recently passed a law allowing the city to reapprove the 2008 ordinance that amended the comprehensive plan without having to seek new state approval.

"This obviously does not foreclose you from making future amendments to the comprehensive plan going through the normal Growth Management Act process," City Attorney Mike Davis said.

The change in the law apparently occurred largely through lobbying conducted by Davis' firm at the behest of the city.

"This strategy appears to have been successful, and I applaud our attorneys for coming up with this approach," Commissioner Marvin Shavlan said in an e-mail to Schechner on Wednesday.

When Tuesday's vote was completed, Commissioner Bev Garnett, an early SOLV activist before her election to the commission, shouted "Woo-hoo!" and promised to bring a bottle of champagne to celebrate the final vote this month.

St. Pete Beach vote on growth rules June 28 could make lawsuits moot 06/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2011 6:27pm]
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