ST. PETE BEACH — A tentative settlement agreement reached last week may end the city's decadelong court battles over development regulations that have cost the city millions of dollars in legal fees.
The agreement succeeded in delaying a state-level challenge to the 2013 version of the comprehensive plan until at least March 31 and may have set the city on the road to long-delayed redevelopment.
The proposed settlement calls for remedial changes to the city's comprehensive plan, including completion of infrastructure studies that will determine the amount of redevelopment that can occur.
Among the biggest issues addressed are: the height of new hotels; the number of hotel rooms allowed per acre; how required infrastructure improvements will be paid for; and how the rights of residents living adjacent to hotel properties will be protected.
Mayor Maria Lowe said she is "cautiously optimistic" that a solution has been found.
During the past decade, multiple lawsuits and court rulings over varying versions of the comprehensive plan have stymied redevelopment and pitted increasingly bitter factions within the city against one another.
"No one gets everything they want. I was just happy everyone agreed to come to the table and was willing to spend hours trying to work their way through this," said City Manager Wayne Saunders.
That sentiment was echoed by the lawyers representing the three residents — Jim Anderson, Joseph Kody and John Miller — who are suing the city.
Negotiations continued this week over how the remedial provisions would be enforced and the kind of penalties that would be imposed on the city if it defaults on the agreement.
"Everybody made compromises," said Ken Weiss, who with Tim Weber represented the residents. "It was a very difficult negotiation. I congratulate the commission for being willing to solve this."
Anderson warned, however, that "this isn't over yet. There are a lot of other issues that still need to be addressed. To say this is a done deal is wrong."
He wants the city to pay for some of his legal bills, to include hurricane evacuation and traffic studies in the settlement, and development impact fees to be more specifically addressed in the final agreement.
"If they don't like it, we can go back to court," Anderson said.
"As soon as somebody builds a tall building there will be another lawsuit," predicted Jack Ohlhaber, a resident who led a failed effort to reach a settlement several years ago.
Under the agreement, new hotel development could occur immediately, but would be restricted to no more than 80 feet in height until other provisions of the agreement are completed.
Once those studies are done, a process that could take up to eight months, the height of new hotels could reach 116 feet over base flood elevation, or about 11 stories, assuming that the pending studies support that level of development.
While this is significantly less than the 146 feet allowed in the 2013 version of the plan, it is much more than the 50-foot limit in the 1998 plan, which the courts have ruled is actually in effect.
"This settlement is better than what we have now," acknowledged Tim Bogott, CEO of the TradeWind Islands Resort.
Lowe said the agreement gives the hoteliers much of what they want in the comprehensive plan. "Height and density provisions have more than doubled," she said.
Before the settlement can go into effect, however, it must be debated in at least two public hearings, tentatively set for Feb. 24 and March 10, ratified by the commission and accepted by a judge.
Even more months of hearings and approvals will be needed for the actual comprehensive plan changes and related land development regulations to be approved.
"I would love for the city to take ownership of this for the good of the whole city,'' Lowe said. "Most people want to reach an agreement that is fair to all."