Residents of St. Pete Beach have a choice. They can continue their experiment in land planning via referendum that has cost millions in legal fees and slammed the door on growth. Or they can work together on a realistic plan for the much-needed redevelopment of their beachfront. This should not be a difficult choice for those who care about the future of the city.
Antidevelopment and prodevelopment factions have battled for years over how tall waterfront hotels can be and who gets to make the decision. In 2006 antidevelopment forces prevailed in a referendum on a new city development plan that would have allowed hotels up to 15 stories on part of the city's aging beachfront strip. Voters not only repealed the plan, they gave themselves veto power over any changes to the city comprehensive plan and development regulations that would increase height or density.
In 2008 a prodevelopment contingent fired back, proposing a new comprehensive plan to remove some development constraints imposed by the 2006 referendum. Voters approved it.
But late last month Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge David Demers, ruling in one of numerous lawsuits filed since 2006, tossed out the 2008 vote because the ballot questions were misleading.
The City Commission will meet Monday night to consider next steps. First, the city should accept Demers' ruling; the ballot questions were clearly improper. City officials should instead focus on ending the expensive, destructive cycle of dueling court battles.
City attorney Mike Davis suggests holding a March referendum to repeal the "Hometown Democracy" sections of the city charter, which let voters approve comprehensive plan amendments, community redevelopment plans and changes to height rules. He also said the charter provision allowing residents to propose ordinances or plan amendments by citizen initiative should be eliminated.
Land development regulation by referendum does not work; St. Pete Beach is the proof. Florida voters understood its potential for disaster when they rejected the Hometown Democracy amendment to the Florida Constitution last month. St. Pete Beach voters should be eager to make that choice for their own community.
But then what? Other Pinellas beach cities have resolved spirited debates over height, density and view corridors by seeking public input, finding creative compromises, and letting elected officials make final planning decisions. Clearwater provides an example of such a process that St. Pete Beach could emulate.
Change can be hard, but residents who want only low-rise redevelopment on expensive beachfront land are unrealistic. Developers will go other places where they can get a better return on their investment. St. Pete Beach residents need to reach a compromise that will allow them to accommodate change, keep their tourist industry competitive and save jobs.