Hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills could finally end for both the city and development-conscious residents next month if a formal mediation is successful.
All the parties to six separate lawsuits plan to submit arguments to Carlos Alvarez, a mediator frequently used by the courts when land development issues are involved.
"This is a huge step in the right direction," said Mayor Mike Finnerty when reached by phone on Friday. "It has taken a lot of work on a lot of people's parts to get this far. Hopefully this will give us some resolution. It would be a dream come true."
Residents Dr. Bill Pyle and Bruce Kadura are suing the city, Finnerty and members of Save Our Little Village (SOLV), a citizens' group, over a successful voter referendum last year that changed the city's comprehensive plan and land development regulations.
They contend voters were misled by inadequate ballot question summaries and that the referendum was therefore invalid. They also challenge some of the details in the plan, including impact fees, development credits and waivers they say could require taxpayers to bear some of the costs of Large Hotel District redevelopment.
Other issues in contention include beach access, architectural guidelines, setback requirements, particularly along the beach and building heights and densities.
One of the lawsuits filed by Pyle is scheduled for trial in January. The other lawsuits filed either by Pyle or Kadura are not yet scheduled for trial.
The pending mediation largely resulted from a series of private meetings over the past two months in which parties from all sides tried to find some "common ground" that would end the lawsuits.
Until the mediation is completed, all of the parties have agreed to temporarily "cease and desist" any further legal action.
Circuit court rules require that all pending civil lawsuits be mediated before they can go to trial. Mediation is not binding, and all discussions are confidential unless there is agreement among all parties to a settlement.
Typically in mediation the parties will initially present their arguments and then go to separate rooms where they meet individually with the mediator. When successful, the mediator is able to help the parties reach a mutually agreeable settlement that ends the legal battle.
The private mediation, scheduled for Oct. 6 and 7, will address controversial aspects of the comprehensive plan and land development regulations proposed by SOLV and approved by some 60 percent voters last year.
The voter-approved ordinances amended the city comprehensive plan to create a community redevelopment district, established a large resort section in the city's land development code, and changed the city's general standards for redevelopment.
During a city commission discussion earlier this month, Commissioners Jim Parent and Bev Garnett, who is a member of SOLV, made clear they would not support any settlement that would negate the referendum vote.
"I would recommend thoughtful caution," said Parent. "I am certainly for protecting what the voters voted on."
Garnett agreed, stressing the city "cannot change the vote" and "cannot compromise the citizens".
The commission will meet in a closed "shade" session Wednesday at 1 p.m. to discuss the city's strategy for the pending mediation.
Meanwhile, a public meeting, as required under the new comprehensive plan, will be held Sept. 24 to inform the public about a proposed redevelopment of the Coral Reef hotel complex on Gulf Boulevard.
Most of the buildings in the complex have been boarded up for years after they were condemned, although two buildings still operate as time-share facilities.
"Three thousand notices are being sent out to residents within the notice area," City Manager Mike Bonfield said Friday. "This is not a city meeting, rather an opportunity for the public to learn about the project and provide the developer with input."