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St. Pete Beach's redevelopment plan still stuck in legal limbo

Published Aug. 4, 2012

ST. PETE BEACH — If you think the political and legal wars over redevelopment in this beach community are over, think again.

On Friday morning, the City Commission, city manager, a contingent of unhappy residents and a bunch of lawyers gathered before Circuit Court Judge David Demers to once again argue for and against the city's current comprehensive plan.

The judge made no decision in the trial and won't make one for at least 20 days, during which time both sides can file additional arguments.

But whatever he decides, the issue is likely to be appealed and could even end up before the Florida Supreme Court.

At stake is the legality of the city's current development regulations.

Those regulations were formulated under a comprehensive plan put in place by voters in 2008 and effectively tossed out last year when Demers ruled that the ballot language in that referendum did not meet the requirements of state law.

The city avoided resubmitting the plan through the state's growth management process when the Legislature subsequently passed a law that allowed the city to reinstate the voter-approved plan — even though the referendum was invalidated. A new referendum was not required because of voter-approved changes to the city charter.

Resident Jim Anderson maintains that the legislative action violated the state Constitution and Friday asked, through his attorney, Tim Weber, for the court to direct the city to resubmit its comprehensive plan to a series of public hearings and state review.

That process, if unchallenged, would take several months. If it were challenged again, it could take years to resolve.

To date, the details of the plan itself have withstood challenges before state agencies and in court.

But, because the legality of the plan continues to be questioned, the city tells developers that they submit building permits at their own risk.

City Manager Mike Bonfield said developers interested in building a hotel at the site of the boarded-up Coral Reef Hotel recently applied for a parking variance, indicating that redevelopment of the site may be imminent.

"Until the comprehensive plan issues are resolved, they still fall under the cloud of proceed at your own risk," Bonfield said.

Now the city, Anderson and developers are waiting, yet again, to see what the court will rule.

Meanwhile, another related lawsuit accusing the commission of violating the Sunshine Law has drawn renewed financial support from the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

"The coalition has amended the grant and added an additional $2,500 for expenses for the appeal of the Sunshine Law case," attorney Ken Weiss said Wednesday.

Jan Kaney, general counsel for the First Amendment Foundation, has also joined Weiss as co-counsel.

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Weiss said the foundation also plans to file an amicus brief in support of the Sunshine Law challenge to the city.

The main issue in the appellate case involves the same act by the Legislature that reinstated the city's comprehensive plan. In this instance, Weiss is arguing that the city attorney improperly lobbied the Legislature, and that the commission violated the Sunshine Law when it met in closed-door sessions to discuss the matter.

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