Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet on Tuesday upheld a judge's decision to block new development on Tierra Verde, a barrier island on the southern tip of St. Petersburg.
The 4-0 decision was a victory for the Tierra Verde Community Association, and a defeat for the city of St. Petersburg.
A state administrative law judge rejected the city's bid to allow a hotel and up to 24 housing units per acre.
The judge said the increased density would adversely affect hurricane evacuation times and storm shelter capabilities; that the city had failed to demonstrate a need for the developments; and that it would be incompatible with surrounding land uses.
"We do not want any more congestion on the island," said association president Paul Murray, describing the balky one-lane bridge linking the island to the mainland as "Kamikaze Highway."
Tuesday's decision didn't come as a surprise to either side.
It's rare for the Cabinet to overturn judges' decisions, said Mark Winn, the chief assistant city attorney for St. Petersburg.
The city now has two options, Winn said. It can appeal Tuesday's decision to the 1st District Court of Appeals, or it can let the judge's order stand.
"We have not fully analyzed what we will do next," Winn said.
But as far as Mayor Bill Foster is concerned, the fight is over.
"My recommendation to the City Council will be to let this order stand," he said Tuesday afternoon. "This needs to be over."
On the campaign trail, Foster said that he opposed the city's annexation of the 18 acres. However, he said he no choice but to stand by the city's direction when he took office.
Now, as far as he's concerned, the city has fulfilled its good-faith obligations.
"The Cabinet did exactly what I expected them to do," he said.
Tom Reese, an attorney who helped represent the community association, said he and his clients are pleased with the decision.
"It definitely sends a message to the city that they shouldn't put that density on Tierra Verde," he said.
About 5,000 residents live on Tierra Verde, a small island that sits off the Pinellas Bayway, between St. Pete Beach and St. Petersburg.
Under the city's proposal, more intense development, including 691 hotel rooms and up to 518 homes, would have been allowed.
"It's not a very dense population," Reese said. "They were trying to build towers."
The city will likely have until late December to decide whether to appeal. If it chooses not to, then the land use and zoning will revert back to the county's definition of commercial general land use, which is more rigid than St. Petersburg's development rules.
But even though they were victorious Tuesday, community association members say the fight isn't over.
They say the ultimate goal is to get St. Petersburg off the island for good.
"The big fight is the annexation itself, but the one we won today is a big battle," Murray said.
After the annexation, Pinellas County and some Tierra Verde residents filed lawsuits seeking to reverse the annexation. That case is still pending in Pinellas Pasco Circuit Court.
"If the city continues to appeal this, it just shows me how much they really want to be on the island," Murray said. "They don't belong here. I think it's about time they quit."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at (727) 893-8642 or firstname.lastname@example.org.