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Court ruling leaves murkiness over development rules in St. Pete Beach

ST. PETE BEACH — It took the City Commission nearly three hours of debate this week over the meaning of a recent court decision to discover the city is still no closer to resolving its decadelong legal battle over development rules.

And now, in addition to the entrenched and opposing views among residents and business owners, even the city's attorneys cannot agree on the best path forward.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled last week that a prior City Commission violated the Sunshine Law in its closed meetings relating to development litigation and that its comprehensive plan approved in 2011 is invalid. The case was sent back to the lower court, which had earlier ruled in favor of the city, for reconsideration.

Without a comprehensive plan in place, no redevelopment can occur, nor can residents pull even the most simple building permits.

"I want clear guidance for the city manager and the planning boards," Mayor Maria Lowe said during Tuesday's meeting. "We have a number of things coming up that are based on the 2011 plan."

She suggested that a comprehensive plan based on an earlier unsuccessful mediation process could be a place to start negotiations.

At the heart of the dispute is the question of how high hotels should be allowed to build. Looking for an answer has cost the city millions of dollars in legal fees.

Tradewinds CEO Tim Bogott stressed that "to just start all over again without a plan will set us back a long, long period again."

Former Mayor Ward Friszolowski, now chairman of the city's planning board, warned that the proposed special tax district in the Corey Avenue area would be jeopardized if the city does not have a comprehensive plan.

Lorraine Huhn, who sat on the commission during the Sunshine Law violation and is a strong proponent of the embattled comprehensive plan, said hotels cannot be competitive if they are restricted to low-rise development.

But Ken Weiss, who with attorney Tim Weber represented resident James Anderson in his successful lawsuit against the city over the plan, wants the city to conduct extensive studies first to determine just how much development is viable on the barrier island.

"If the city wants to move forward, it needs to get hurricane, evacuation, and infrastructure studies done,'' Weiss said. "It is hard to construct a plan until you have those."

At the end of its extended special meeting, all the commission could do was schedule yet another meeting (5 p.m., today), at which the city hopes to:

• Decide whether to challenge the court ruling.

• Review the lengthy and confusing history of the city's development battles fought both in the courts and at the ballot box.

• Create a plan for reinstating some as-yet undetermined version of a comprehensive plan.

The city's prior official attorneys from the firm Bryant Miller Olive, still defending the city in the development-related lawsuits, want the city to challenge the recent decision relating to both the comprehensive plan and the Sunshine Law.

They also want the city to immediately re-adopt its comprehensive plan.

"No matter what plan you decide you want you should readopt it in 2014 so you have some certainty," said attorney Susan Churuti, who believes the appeal court ruling was in error.

The city's newly appointed official attorney Andrew Dickman strongly disagreed on challenging the court's decision, but did agree on readopting the comprehensive plan.

"I am personally not in favor of asking for a rehearing. It could take a very long time and could cost you a lot of money," Dickman said.

"And I don't think we would win on the Sunshine Law, unfortunately."

An important participant in those negotiations will be new City Manager Wayne Saunders, who was formally appointed earlier in Tuesday's meeting.

Saunders will begin his new duties officially on Nov. 10 at an annual salary of $135,000.

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