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St. Pete Beach's new commission will tackle development issues

Shortly after taking the oath of office Tuesday, two new commissioners and a new mayor will be faced with the city's most controversial issue, the legal battle over pro-development petition items.

Newly elected Commissioners Allan Halpern and Christopher Leonard will be sworn in and Commissioner Mike Finnerty will take the seat of Mayor Ward Friszolowski.

Next the commission will likely hear a presentation from attorney Thomas W. Reese on options after Circuit Judge David A. Demers' order last Thursday.

Demers ruled that the city must hold an election for the six petition items brought by the political group Save Our Little Village. The current commission failed to put the items to a vote within the 90-day time period outlined by the city's charter.

Members argued that voter approval of the items, one of which is an amended comprehensive plan aimed at spurring development, would violate the process outlined by the Florida Growth Management Act for creating them.

"It's not that the city's position is that it is not entitled to a referendum. It's when?" Reese said.

But Demers' order states "the proposed ordinances would do nothing more than require that the process contemplated by the Growth Management Act be initiated and pursued."

The order is stayed until March 24, giving the new commission little time to decide whether to appeal the decision or put the items to a vote.

"I don't want to appeal. They can go on the ballot and let the people decide," Finnerty said.

However, the city charter also requires residents to vote on any changes to a comprehensive plan, leaving another question unanswered. If the residents approve the petitions and they are put through the Growth Management Process, where changes occur, would another vote be required?

The commission attempted to head off this problem by sending the SOLV comprehensive plan to its planning board for review last month. Reese suggested this as the first step toward initiating the process and sending the items to referendum vote.

"I don't think you can just put it on a ballot. I think that would be bad for all communities going forward and I don't think that's anyone's intention," Commissioner Linda Chaney said. "I think it would increase their chances of having it approved if they had a chance for public input."

Among others, Chaney argues that putting SOLV's comprehensive plan straight on the ballot would open the floodgates, allowing other political groups to do the same.

SOLV chairwoman Lorraine Huhn previously called the commission's decision to send the items to the city's planning board "stall tactics." Huhn was hesitant to comment on the decision other than saying SOLV was "quite pleased."

William Pyle, the beach resident who bankrolled an opposing political group, Citizens For Responsible Growth, could also play a part in the future of the petitions.

Pyle intervened in the SOLV case on the basis that he would be adversely affected by the petition items.

"No decisions have been made and we're looking at all the options," said attorney Anthony S. Battaglia, who represents Pyle.

Nick Johnson can be reached at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or 893-8361.

St. Pete Beach's new commission will tackle development issues 03/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2008 3:27pm]
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