ST. PETERSBURG — A controversial 2008 annexation of more than 18 acres in Tierra Verde that St. Petersburg approved to allow a high-rise hotel complex was appropriate and legal, an appeals court ruled.
Circuit Court judges Amy M. Williams, Peter Ramsberger and Pamela A. M. Campbell ruled that the Tierra Verde Community Association and Pinellas County, which opposed the annexation and subsequent development plans, failed to prove that the city violated any rules or laws, or that the annexation wasn't supported by competent and substantial evidence.
"We are pleased," said Mark Winn, St. Petersburg chief assistant city attorney. "The court has conclusively determined that all the legal challenges were not valid."
At least those challenges involving the annexation. But challenges involving development plans still stand.
Four months ago, the Florida Cabinet upheld a judge's decision to block the construction on the newly annexed land of up to 691 hotel rooms and 518 homes.
The annexation plans were developed under former Mayor Rick Baker. The city couldn't approve those plans until the property, separated from the city by water, was annexed into the city. Tierra Verde residents said the proposed development was too dense, increasing pollution and traffic beyond acceptable levels. Pinellas County planners also objected.
Last year, a state administrative law judge rejected the plans because, among other things, they would make hurricane evacuations more dangerous. In November, then-Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet agreed, upholding the judge's decision to reject the development.
Since then, city officials have awaited the ruling on the annexation to decide what to do next, Winn said. "Now that we have this decision, we can go ahead and revise our plans," he said.
Those plans won't be as intense as the ones ruled invalid last year because the original owners lost the land to foreclosure.
"The initial owners aren't interested in moving forward anymore," Winn said.
Still, the decision disappointed John Thomas, an attorney for Tierra Verde Community Association. He said the ruling overlooked that the city presented key evidence, such as how much new tax revenue could be collected in the annexation, after the public was allowed to speak.
"What the court has done is establish a slippery slope where key evidence can be presented after the opposition has been told to sit down and be quiet," Thomas said. "That is inherently unfair."
He said he is considering an appeal. Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett said he would meet with staff attorneys to discuss whether to appeal. Any appeal would likely focus on procedural or due process issues, not the judge's finding that crossing the intracoastal is allowed. He declined further comment until he reviewed the ruling.
"It was a surprise to me," said County Commissioner John Morroni, whose district includes Tierra Verde.
David DeCamp contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 893-8037 or [email protected]