TREASURE ISLAND — City commissioners have halted work on a planned development district for the north end of the island until they receive a legal opinion on a new law that might impact it.
Commissioners on Tuesday decided to spend up to $5,000 for an expert opinion on whether a state law that went into effect last summer would prohibit a voter referendum on changes in height and density.
An ordinance establishing a north end planned development district is aimed at providing more flexibility for developers like Greenleaf Capital, which owns 10 acres near John's Pass.
On the advice of City Attorney Maura Kiefer, commissioners decided to request an opinion from a Boca Raton law firm on whether House Bill 537 could overrule the city's requirement for a voter referendum if developers want to build higher than five stories or increase density to more than 50 units per acre. The firm recently was in litigation involving the new law.
"I'm hoping not and thinking not but everybody is trying to find out where they stand" in reference to the new law, Kiefer said.
The law prohibits voter referendums on development orders but Kiefer said it is unclear whether the city's establishment of a development district would fall under the law.
Commissioner Alan Bildz said he thinks it will and Mayor Bob Minning, along with Commissioner Carol Coward, said the city should make every effort to find out.
But Key Capri residents and others opposed to Greenleaf's north end development objected to the city spending money on a legal opinion.
"You are giving ammunition to the builders in the city," Ed Gayton said. "Nobody is questioning a referendum. If the developers want to know, let them pay for it. Let's not have our money be spent for somebody else's questions."
Commissioner Phil Collins agreed, saying the attorney's opinion would be "only an opinion. We have no need to get it."
But Minning assured residents that commissioners are not trying to "circumvent holding a referendum" but the commission needs legal counsel to help it navigate establishing a new zoning district.
At a public hearing on the first reading of the north end development ordinance, Brent Von Horn, assistant general counsel for Greenleaf, asked commissioners to streamline the approval process by reducing the five required public hearings to one.
"What we want to develop is a world-class development which will provide more jobs and revenue for the city, which then will mean less tax increases for you," Von Horn told members of the audience.
An initial conceptual plan floated by Greenleaf, the real estate arm of HCI Holdings, included a 14-story and a 10-story building on its property for a $100 million to $150 million high-end resort.
But Don Taylor, a Key Capri resident, insisted that "a vote for this ordinance is a vote for increased density."