A new land use map the St. Petersburg City Council will vote on today is a slick trick by the city aimed at blunting the potential impact of Amendment 4, the so-called "Hometown Democracy" amendment on November's ballot. Critics call the map bogus and state regulators doubt it's legal. But most importantly, council members risk violating voters' trust and rights if they approve the map today.
Amendment 4, if approved Nov. 2, would give local voters the right to veto proposed changes to their local comprehensive plan — the detailed document required under state law that guides growth and dovetails with a land use map. Since changes to the plans are fairly routine, Floridians could face lots of trips to the polls. Across the state, officials are rightfully worried about the cost of the referendums and the stranglehold they could put on wise land-use planning and growth.
So St. Petersburg's half-baked plan is to quickly adopt, before the November vote, a second, simplified land use map but misleadingly call it a "Comprehensive Land Use Plan." The map compresses the city's 22 land use categories into five broad ones. The clear intention is to limit referendums only to changes to those broad categories. Residents would lose the right to veto changes to the far more detailed comprehensive plan that truly guides development.
The state Department of Community Affairs condemns the scheme. "No legal basis or authority exists for the establishment of such a document," DCA reviewers said. They said the decoy map's land use descriptions are too vague to satisfy state law, could permit development not allowed under the more specific current map, and could allow denser development in coastal high hazard areas.
The city, responding to DCA's criticisms, argued that under home rule it can do anything not specifically forbidden in state law — including, apparently, exploiting a technicality to deny its residents the right to vote on all changes to its real comprehensive plan.
A court may have to determine whether St. Petersburg has the legal authority to adopt a decoy map, call it a comprehensive plan and allow it to be passed off as the guiding document for future growth. But the council's moral authority will be damaged if it takes this duplicitous step. Voters on the fence about Amendment 4 may just be persuaded they can't trust their leaders to do the right thing.