ST. PETE BEACH — Resolving the city's development wars is back in the hands of voters.
The City Commission voted Tuesday to ask voters to give the commission back the exclusive power to set rules for future development in the city.
The March ballot will include three key referendum questions that, if approved, would repeal the city's current charter requirement for voter approval of changes to building height or density, to land use categories in new or amended comprehensive plans or land development codes, and to changes to community redevelopment plans.
The city's current voter-approved comprehensive plan was tossed out last month by Circuit Court Judge David Demers in a ruling that found the 2008 ballot summary "misleading."
The city could have resubmitted the same plan to voters in March, but commissioners were concerned that whatever changes they made to the maximum 75-word ballot question would again trigger lawsuits.
"This is the only alternative, the only solution we have to all these lawsuits," Mayor Mike Finnerty said just before the commission approved the March referendum questions.
The city's attorneys stressed that Demers did not require the city to take any particular action, but that if the comprehensive plan were resubmitted to voters, the ballot question would have to "pass muster."
Suzanne Van Wyk, one of the city's attorneys, said legal challenges to ballot language frequently win in court.
"I firmly believe you cannot craft a ballot summary that will not be challenged and that will tie you up in court again," Van Wyk said.
The attorneys stressed that Demers did not find the substance of the city's comprehensive plan faulty and that it meets state requirements. The commission could easily put it back into effect if voters give up their right to approve or reject the plan at the polls.
"We think this (asking voters to give up their approval rights) puts you in a better position that is less of a risk (of future lawsuits) and is less costly," City Attorney Mike Davis told the commission.
In the past decade, the city has spent nearly $1 million on lawsuits and legal actions relating to land development issues.
The controversy, combined with the recent economic decline and crash of the real estate market, has had a marked effect on the city, according to the commission.
"The city has been in decay for many years," said Commissioner Beverly Garnett. "We have a lot of vacant properties out there surrounded by chain-link fences. We need to move this city forward by putting the commission back in control of the city's development."
Commissioner Al Halpern said the multiple lawsuits challenging the 2008 voter-approved comprehensive plan prevented the city from fulfilling its "obligation" to voters.
Garnett said: "Sixty percent of residents voted for the comprehensive plan, and 40 percent did not. That 40 percent has held the city up for the last five years."
Then there's the other perspective.
"Repealing these ordinances is the wrong thing to do," argued Bruce Kadoura, one of the residents who successfully sued the city over the 2008 comprehensive plan referendum. He is now running for mayor.
"Don't you think the people of St. Pete Beach have the right to vote?" asked Bill Pyle, another resident who successfully challenged the 2008 ballot summaries.
"If it was right to put this issue on the ballot in 2006, it is just as right, if not more so, to put it on the ballot now," Vice Mayor Jim Parent countered.
In a related matter, the commission approved placing a fourth item on the March ballot that would slightly change the rules for voter initiatives and voter-instigated referendum petitions.
If approved by voters, initiative and referendum petitions would need signatures from 10 percent of voters in each district, instead of the current 10 percent citywide.
It would also set a 90-day period to submit the petitions to the city for inclusion on the ballot at the next regular or special election.