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PolitiFact: Don't use St. Pete Beach as example of Hometown Democracy's flaws

Tiny St. Pete Beach finds itself front and center in a statewide campaign to put land use decisions in voters' hands.

Opponents of Amendment 4 say the 10,000-person beachfront community is a perfect case study of what's wrong with the constitutional initiative.

They claim in a new advertisement that the town has seen higher taxes, fewer jobs and countless legal challenges since voters wrestled control over major development matters from elected officials in 2006.

While bad, the results are "tame by comparison" to what would happen should voters approve Amendment 4 in November, says Ryan Houck, who leads the opposition group.

"Ryan's being very disingenuous," counters Leslie Blackner, head of the group supporting the change.

Sounds like a case for the Truth-O-Meter.

• • •

Houck's group, which is called Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy and is funded by developers and major Florida businesses like Publix and U.S. Sugar, released a Web video documenting St. Pete Beach's experience.

PolitiFact Florida examined three claims from the 2-minute, 15-second ad, including whether St. Pete Beach's experience is truly comparable to Amendment 4.

Some background.

In 2005, St. Pete Beach's five-member City Commission was considering changing its development plan, the comprehensive plan. The commission was debating incentives to lure additional hotels that could increase the density of a development and change the allowed uses.

The talk of change didn't sit well with many residents, who collected petitions to get a series of charter amendments on the city ballot that would require voter approval for height increases and other changes to land use plans.

From there it got contentious. The city sued to stop the vote, saying the proposed charter amendments violated state land use law. A developer also sued, saying the petition process was costing him money.

The city lost its case on appeal, and in November 2006, voters narrowly approved most of the changes to the City Charter. The results: St. Pete Beach became the first town in Florida where residents directly controlled development decisions. Voters also elected two members of Citizens for Responsible Growth to the City Commission, giving them a majority.

That prompted a pro-developer group to start its own petition drive and propose its own amendments to the city's comprehensive plan. The city's elected officials — who had gone from being largely pro-development to anti-development — tried to stop them.

It got even more contentious. There were more lawsuits.

Then, another election, another change of power, and eventually, another referendum. This time, the pro-development side won.

The upshot — four years after city voters decided they wanted control over land use decisions, the entire process has been sidetracked and stymied by lawsuits and politics, petition drives and egos.

• • •

Like in St. Pete Beach, Amendment 4 seeks citizen control over land use decisions. The amendment would require a referendum before a local government could amend or adopt a new comprehensive land use plan.

Is it a fair comparison?

Blackner walked PolitiFact Florida through how she says the new process would work.

Say a developer proposes an amendment to the comprehensive plan to build a condo high-rise in the middle of town. Currently, an application would be submitted to the local government that has jurisdiction; the local government would follow its approval process — two public hearings, etc.; and then the state Department of Community Affairs would be asked to sign off on the amendment. None of that would change.

But if the developer gets his approvals, Amendment 4 would add one more step. Voters would either ratify or veto the developer's plans at the next regularly scheduled election.

What's critical to note in St. Pete Beach's case is that citizens themselves proposed amendments to the comprehensive plan — an end-run of the process established by state law.

The counterargument from opponents like Houck focuses on the outcomes. Attempts to amend the comprehensive plan by referendum in St. Pete Beach have resulted in lawsuits.

What's to stop a developer, then, from suing the city should its proposal fail via Amendment 4?

Nothing, really. And maybe that's enough to make the analogy valid.

But we think voters should be wary in blindly believing that St. Pete Beach's experiences would be duplicated statewide should Amendment 4 pass. Amendment 4 isn't designed to go around government the way the situation in St. Pete Beach played out. And it has nothing to do with citizens proposing amendments to the local comprehensive plan, like what has happened in St. Pete Beach.

And that's why we found the comparison between Amendment 4 and St. Pete Beach to be Half True.

Reach Aaron Sharockman at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

The statement

St. Pete Beach's experiences are a "fair example" of what could happen if Amendment 4 passes.

Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, March 15 in an interview

The ruling

The amendment itself isn't designed to go around government the way the situation in St. Pete Beach played out. And it has nothing to do with citizens proposing amendments to the local comprehensive plan, like what has happened in St. Pete Beach. We rule this Half True.

The statement

Because of a local version of Amendment 4, "the taxpayers of St. Pete Beach have had to pay hundreds of thousands in legal bills."

Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, March 10 in an Internet ad.

The ruling

The person tasked with keeping count says the bill is now $734,000. So we rate this claim True.

The statement

St. Pete Beach's local version of Amendment 4 resulted in "seemingly endless lawsuits (that) decimated the city's legal budget and forced the city to raise the property tax rate."

Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, March 10 in an Internet ad

The ruling

Yes, there were lawsuits and yes, the city slightly raised its rate in 2009. But the decision was motivated by several factors, most notably the decline in property values, as well as legal fees. We rate this Half True.

PolitiFact: Don't use St. Pete Beach as example of Hometown Democracy's flaws 03/28/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 29, 2010 4:13pm]

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