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St. Pete Beach voters may yield rights to alter city charter

ST. PETE BEACH — Voters may be asked in March to give up their right to approve or initiate changes to building height and density regulations, as well as act on the city's Comprehensive Plan.

That is the only way to get out of the "revolving door" of "constant lawsuits," City Attorney Mike Davis told the commission during a workshop session Tuesday.

Before the public workshop, the commission met privately for about 90 minutes with Davis and other city attorneys to decide how to respond to a recent court decision that declared the city's Comprehensive Plan invalid.

A lawsuit filed by resident Bill Pyle is one of several challenging the city's land use plan and development regulations that are still pending.

Just this year, development-related lawsuits have cost city taxpayers more than a half-million dollars in legal fees.

"The ultimate solution is to consider repealing the Hometown Democracy provisions contained in your charter," Davis said.

He also proposed sharply limiting present charter provisions allowing citizen initiatives and petition-forced referendum elections.

Under the current city charter, 10 percent of registered voters can force a citywide referendum to change the city charter, repeal city ordinances or even propose new ordinances.

While state law protects voters' right to change a city charter, it does not guarantee a right to propose or repeal ordinances by initiative, according to Davis.

Davis said he will recommend that the city ban citizens from petitioning to change the Comprehensive Plan or land development regulations, as well as change any ordinances affecting spending, budget, or employee regulations.

The commission did not comment on Davis' suggestions but immediately called a special meeting for 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 13 to debate the proposed charter changes.

A final vote must be taken this month to meet the supervisor of elections' Jan. 7 deadline to submit ballot questions for the March 8 municipal elections.

Davis' initial draft says the current charter provisions "have caused the city to expend a great deal of money in litigation and have hindered quality development of the city."

He also noted that city voters defeated the statewide Hometown Democracy amendment "by a wide margin."

Last month, a movement to add a similar requirement for voter approval of local comprehensive plans to the state Constitution was sharply rejected by 67 percent of voters statewide, 63 percent of county voters and 60 percent of city voters.

In that election, about 42 percent of city voters went to the polls, more than double the city's average voter turnout.

City officials are hoping that vote is a strong indicator that residents are willing to repeal the development-related charter provisions.

In 2006, city voters approved a city charter change that required voter approval for all future changes to the city's comprehensive plan, and particularly any changes to the plan or to land development regulations affecting building heights, densities, intensities or land use.

Pyle was actively involved in the political action group Citizens for Responsible Growth, which proposed the charter change.

Then in 2008, a rival citizens group, Save Our Little Village, petitioned for a voter referendum on its draft of a revised Comprehensive Plan and land development regulations affecting the city's hotel and downtown commercial districts.

Although voters strongly approved the development regulations, Pyle and other residents sued, arguing that voters were misled and that the regulations violated state law.

Circuit Judge David Demers ruled last month that the ballot summaries in that 2008 referendum election were, in fact, misleading and declared the voter-approved ordinances "invalid."

City Attorney Davis says the judge's ruling was "confusing" and he planned to ask the court for clarification of the ruling, a formal re-hearing on the case, and a delay in implementing the final ruling until the other development-related cases are decided.

St. Pete Beach voters may yield rights to alter city charter 12/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 4, 2010 3:30am]
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