Realtors pressure St. Pete to loosen development rule in flood-risk zone

Council members are set to vote on the contentious plan Thursday night.
A mailing about proposed changes to how St. Petersburg handles development in the Coastal High Hazard Area was sent to some residents before a key City Council vote. In this, the resident redacted their name.
A mailing about proposed changes to how St. Petersburg handles development in the Coastal High Hazard Area was sent to some residents before a key City Council vote. In this, the resident redacted their name. [ Photo courtesy Council member Gina Driscoll ]
Published Oct. 8, 2020|Updated Oct. 9, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — As a key vote looms before the City Council to potentially allow more development in flood-prone areas, one of Florida’s powerful special interest groups is making a late push.

A political committee of Florida Realtors, which lobbies for the real estate industry, sent a mailer to some residents encouraging them to urge council members to pass the changes.

“Protect private property rights in St. Pete,” one version says, highlighting “outdated development restrictions” while steering people to a website with a form email to send to city leaders. The same website was used years ago to advocate against a change to the way the city designated historic neighborhoods.

A spokeswoman for Florida Realtors said the mailer was conceived by the local Pinellas Realtor Organization.

Related: St. Petersburg residents weigh in on developing flood-risk areas

Council members are supposed to vote Thursday night on whether to give developers a chance of building more dense housing in what’s known as the Coastal High Hazard Area. Defined as places that federal models show could flood in a Category One hurricane, the Hazard Area covers roughly 40 percent of the city. Existing rules say leaders will not allow increases in density there, meaning a property owner could not convert land zoned for a couple of homes into a big apartment complex.

The change is a priority of Mayor Rick Kriseman, whose administration has countered the outcry from environmentalists over the region’s vulnerability to climate change by saying the measure will make the city safer. It would require more resilient construction in the flood-prone zone, including elevating buildings.

“The proposed amendments are not a silver bullet for any of the housing issues facing our community, but without the proposed amendments we would be ignoring an opportunity to chip away at them,” said Joe Farrell, the Pinellas Realtor Organization’s vice president of public affairs, in a statement. He noted that St. Petersburg needs more housing and stronger redevelopment of old buildings. It was not immediately clear how many people received the mailer or who the group targeted.

A mailing about proposed changes to how St. Petersburg handles development in the Coastal High Hazard Area was sent to some residents before a key city council vote.
A mailing about proposed changes to how St. Petersburg handles development in the Coastal High Hazard Area was sent to some residents before a key city council vote. [ Photo courtesy Council member Gina Driscoll ]

Opponents say the mailer is another example of what they see as the city’s true intent: to support the wishes of developers, regardless of future consequences for a region vulnerable to hurricanes and sea level rise.

“That is just textbook big money trying to get a town to do what they want,” said James Scott, executive director of the Suncoast Sierra Club. “It’s a step in the wrong direction.”

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That the Realtors' group would get involved in such a key development issue is not surprising. They are a force in both state and local elections and have given to several council members who appear poised to support the amendment Thursday.

Five sitting council members have received donations from the Florida Realtors Association’s political committees. Robert Blackmon, Ed Montanari and Deborah Figgs-Sanders each received $6,000 in their election or reelection bids last year, according to their financial disclosures. Lisa Wheeler-Bowman received $3,000. In 2017, Brandi Gabbard received $6,000.

All five have previously voted to advance the High Hazard amendments. Blackmon, Wheeler-Bowman and Gabbard all said the contributions don’t affect their vote. Montanari and Figgs-Sanders did not respond to text messages for comment.

The city started to look at changing the rules around the Hazard Area when updated projections from scientists expanded the at-risk area in St. Petersburg, touching key corridors that local leaders hope to grow. The amendments will not suddenly greenlight a development spree everywhere, proponents say. Increases in density will be allowed only in specific places and after a lengthy review process.

The measure appeared at risk of failing when it was scheduled for a vote in June, but Kriseman’s team asked the council to delay. Since then, the debate, which had largely revolved around storm surge flooding concerns and sea level rise, has been reframed around St. Petersburg’s affordable housing crunch.

Supporters have said council members should approve the pitch to slow gentrification and prevent developers from turning to the city’s traditionally Black neighborhoods for new housing, further inland and outside the Hazard Area.

“People want to live in St. Petersburg, and if we don’t allow it in a large part of our city, we’re going to force development in certain areas,” Blackmon said. “This vote is about direction. It’s about where do we allow developments to occur.”

He argued the new building standards will be enough to stave off the impacts of sea level rise for generations. And after that? “You’d assume at that point, we’ve done enough for our environment… that we could hopefully mitigate a lot of the damage we’re doing to slow down the rate of climate change and storm-harden our natural environment,” he said.

The Hazard Area amendments are also crucial for workforce development, said ShaQuille Lashley, 27, who lives in Historic Uptown. He supports the plan and said he intends to speak Thursday evening in favor of the change.

Many of the city’s economic hubs, including the Gateway area and the Innovation and Skyway Marina districts, touch the Hazard Area. Lashley said allowing those places to expand is critical if the city is to attract more jobs. He also said the city must increase its population density, as more people would make it easier to sustain public transit.

“We are a built-out city and we are a peninsula, and we have such an influx of people coming in from different states,” said Lashley, an occupational therapist studying to become a Realtor.

The mailer on the Coastal High Hazard Area was seen by at least some residents in the Old Southeast, home to commenters who questioned the changes at a council meeting earlier this year. Bill Dahl, president of the Old Southeast Neighborhood Association, said the city is creating a “false firestorm about affordable housing and gentrification” to push through changes too quickly.

“We have really dog whistle positioning being used,” said Dahl, who did not receive a mailer himself. “They are just totally siding with special interests and big money.”

The Old Southeast is around Salt Creek, where a Miami developer has proposed a $2 billion construction project contingent on changes to the density requirements. That effort would provide both high-end and affordable housing.

At a meeting in August, council member Gina Driscoll, who opposes the plan, asked planning and development services director Liz Abernethy about affordable housing and whether the changes are meant to slow gentrification.

“This initiative was not designed as an affordable housing initiative,” Abernethy said.

Climate gentrification is a subject of growing concern across the country, the idea that wealthier people fleeing sea level rise will displace residents in more affordable communities on higher ground, worsening already large economic and racial gaps in housing.

Kenneth Gould, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, has studied gentrification and said the policy change in St. Petersburg would not prevent developers from moving into other neighborhoods when they want.

“Developers won’t turn there because why?” he said. “That’s a hollow argument.”

In New York City, he said, when people want to live near the water and construct more resilient buildings, billionaires just displace millionaires, who need another place to go. The same concept applies in other places.

“What you ought to be doing is retreating from the coast,” Gould said. “That’s what makes ecological sense.”

Affordable housing does not bring much money to developers, he said, so that line of argument is typically “rhetoric to get something through.”

“This is not an affordable housing issue,” Gould said. “There’s nothing built into this to protect or produce affordable housing.”

Times staff writer Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.