St. Petersburg City Council members haven't conceded that their annexation of part of the island community of Tierra Verde was arrogant and overreaching — it was — but at least they have decided not to appeal a judge's smack-down of the high-density land use and zoning the city gave the annexed land. With the annexation itself now being challenged in court by residents, the city shouldn't rush to rezone the property but should see how things play out in the next few months.
Administrative Law Judge Bram D.E. Canter ruled in July that the city violated its own comprehensive plan and the state's plan when it voted to allow up to 691 hotel rooms or 518 apartments or condominiums on the 18 acres St. Petersburg annexed in December 2008. That kind of development would be incompatible with the island's low-rise residential character, Canter found.
But he was especially concerned that the city ignored the delays in hurricane evacuation times that would result and the number of additional hurricane shelter spaces that would be required if such dense development were allowed. Residents' only vehicle access to the mainland is a single, narrow ribbon of roadway across the water.
Last month, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet upheld Canter's decision. St. Petersburg had the option to plead its case to the 1st District Court of Appeal. However, at the Nov. 22 City Council meeting, Mark Winn, chief assistant city attorney, didn't recommend that course.
"We don't feel we would necessarily prevail on an appeal," he admitted.
Winn also revealed that one of the two landowners who originally sought the annexation and persuaded the city to allow intense development is now in foreclosure.
For now, the city has a legally binding agreement with the two owners that requires the City Council to assign some sort of land development designation to the property. According to Winn, the city has several options. It could give the land entirely new land use and zoning designations that wouldn't run afoul of Canter's order. It could leave the high-density designations in place, but create an "overlay" of additional restrictions for those 18 acres. Or the city could change its comprehensive plan to eliminate the conflicts with the landowners' plans — an awful idea that would put public safety and the issue of compatibility on the back burner in order to satisfy just two landowners.
Mayor Bill Foster's influence was felt in the city's lack of enthusiasm for pursuing an appeal. Annexing potentially lucrative Tierra Verde was a project of former Mayor Rick Baker, not Foster. As a candidate, Foster opposed the annexation, but he says he now has no choice — he must comply with the annexation agreement Baker negotiated.
Perhaps so, but he is not compelled to put his staff to work immediately on a rezoning. Within a few months, the residents' challenge of the annexation could make progress and the landowners' financial situation could become clearer. Whatever city officials do, duty compels them to protect the interests of the public, not the interests of two landowners looking for profit.