Stalemate has been the status quo in St. Pete Beach for five years now. What began as a voter backlash to the City Commission's plan to allow hotels of up to 15 stories on the city's aging beachfront devolved into a flawed growth management process that has cost city taxpayers millions of dollars in litigation. Development investment is stalled, a reality that threatens property values and the community's tourist-dependent economy. St. Pete Beach voters can start cleaning up this mess Tuesday by approving three amendments to the City Charter.
St. Pete Beach voters were the first in the state to embrace a philosophy that later became known as "Hometown Democracy," a grass roots movement born in frustration that many local governments are all too eager to acquiesce to developers. They approved a citizen petition amending the city's charter in 2006 to require voter referendums on all future changes to the comprehensive land use plan, community redevelopment plans and any regulation increasing allowable building height.
Later that year, voters repealed the commission's plans to increase density and building height in parts of the city. But in 2008, the business community used the ballot box to win approval of a measured but pro-development amendment. That prompted the original 2006 petition backers to file suit, and a trial judge nullified the 2008 vote by concluding the ballot language was misleading. So the city and its property owners are in limbo, since the nullified land use plan is the only one recognized by the state.
Supporters of growth-management-by-voter argue the City Commission should put another comprehensive land use plan amendment on the ballot and seek voter and state approval. But that will potentially launch a whole new round of costly and time-consuming litigation. The wiser path is on Tuesday's ballot.
The City Commission has asked voters to repeal the experiment in Hometown Democracy in a series of three proposed charter amendments. That would return all growth management authority to the elected City Commission — one that now has more sensitivity to the community's development concerns. A fourth question, less pressing, would also put some parameters on qualifying future petition initiatives to the ballot.
Florida's growth management laws leave much to be desired, but land use plans by their very nature are not suited to the 75-word ballot summary required under election law. They are complex and technical documents full of maps and codes that do not translate well to a ballot summary. It is far better to leave the decisions to elected officials who can be held accountable at the next election.
St. Pete Beach voters hoping to maintain the city's small-town feel also need to be realistic about the ultimate cost of repeatedly saying 'no' to every significant opportunity for redevelopment. Developers will go other places where new investment is allowed. Tourists will follow, and so will the jobs. It's far more constructive for the public to press elected officials to construct development plans that are sensitive to the community's interests. The status quo is not in the community's long-term interests, and Tuesday's referendums would be a significant step toward ending a fight that has cost the city too much time and money.