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Published Jul. 9, 2010

St. Petersburg wasn't just greedy when it reached across water to annex a valuable slice of Tierra Verde, an island whose residents strongly opposed the land grab. Now a judge has found the city ignored public safety and violated state and local policies when it agreed to high-density development there. The city should take advantage of this opportunity to reconsider.

Administrative Law Judge Bram D.E. Canter ruled last week that when St. Petersburg amended its comprehensive plan so hotels and high-rise residences could be built on the island, it did not consider how much time would be required to evacuate residents in a hurricane. The city also didn't consider how much the additional residents would create more need for hurricane shelter space.

Canter's decision stemmed from a complaint filed by the Tierra Verde Community Association and two residents, Maura Kiefer and Michael Mauro, contesting the city's changes to its comprehensive plan and future land use map to incorporate most of the 18 acres of Tierra Verde land for commercial general use.The changes would allow up to 691 hotel rooms or up to 518 apartments or condominiums on the land. Neighbors said that would dramatically change the character of their mostly residential, low-rise community. But the judge was more concerned that the city didn't consider hurricane evacuation times and shelters.

The judge also ruled that development of the maximum number of residential or hotel units would be incompatible with surrounding uses. And he found several inconsistencies between St. Petersburg's decision to allow higher density on Tierra Verde and the city's comprehensive plan, which is supposed to guide future growth.

The judge's ruling now goes to the governor and state Cabinet, which should confirm that the city violated state requirements. City officials say they are bound by the terms of the annexation agreement with the landowners and may appeal or just submit another plan amendment and hope for a different outcome next time.

The city needs to get its priorities straight. Adding such density to a low-lying island that has only one way off is a threat to public safety. That the city's decisions also were inconsistent with policy just adds to the evidence that St. Petersburg lost its way when it annexed Tierra Verde. The mayor and City Council should instruct their attorneys to find a solution that protects both public safety and the city's vision of compatible growth.