ST. PETERSBURG — While coastal cities across the country are struggling to contend with climate change, the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday voted to open the door for more development in flood-prone areas.
Council members voted 6-2 to loosen rules that prohibited increases in building density in the Coastal High Hazard Area. The next vote, to require more resilient construction in those high-risk zones, passed unanimously.
City officials argued that raising building standards in that area, such as elevating new construction, will offset the risk of allowing more development in places that could flood.
Though the issue existed within the wonky opacity of city maps and land use rules, the decision to lift the prohibition on increasing density in flood-prone areas could have major consequences for a coastal city that is simultaneously growing and threatened by rising sea water on three sides.
“It is not a pro-development policy by any means," said city development administrator Alan DeLisle during his pitch to the City Council. "It is pro-future of this city. It is about balancing priorities and issues.”
Opponents of the proposal attacked it as “shortsighted."
“We will be judged on the wisdom of our decisions when the next storm comes through here, and we want to be judged as having made wise decisions," said city resident Stephen Waters during the public hearing Thursday.
The rules in place before Thursday’s votes prevented leaders from increasing building density — the amount of development per acre — within the Coastal High Hazard Area. That area is defined as places that federal models show could flood during a Category 1 hurricane. The rules prohibited a property owner from converting land zoned for several home into an apartment complex.
They didn’t significantly curtail development four years ago, when the High Hazard Area only covered about 20 percent of the city, most of which was preservation land. But in 2016, the latest federal models doubled that high-risk zone to encompass much more of the city. And the city’s old rules suddenly limited the types of construction permitted in some of St. Petersburg’s busiest job centers, major corridors and areas ripe for redevelopment.
Thursday’s vote lifted the blanket prohibition on increasing density, but proponents say it does not greenlight a development spree across the city. Now, property owners within certain areas targeted for growth or redevelopment — which account for about a third of the hazard zone — can apply for density increases. Applications would then be subject to a lengthy review process that includes five public hearings.
The other measure the council approved on Thursday changes the building codes, requiring some properties in the Hazard Area be built with storm-resistant materials and two additional feet above minimum flood standards.
The changes were a priority of Mayor Rick Kriseman. While environmentalists say such changes exacerbate the city’s already growing vulnerability to climate change, his administration has countered that the measure will make the city safer by replacing old construction with new, sturdier development.
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 a decision. Since then the debate — which largely revolved around storm surge flooding concerns and sea level rise — was reframed around the city’s affordable housing crunch and ongoing gentrification.
Supporters argue more housing, which could come in the form of apartments and condos in areas where they were previously prohibited, would push down housing prices. And, they said the change was needed to direct developers to the coastal regions and away from the city’s traditionally Black neighborhoods, which face gentrification. New housing there is generally cheaper, further inland and not subject to the High Hazard limitations.
As the vote approached, a political committee of Florida Realtors, which lobbies for the real estate industry, flooded neighborhoods with mailers encouraging residents to urge their council members to approve the changes.
Opponents of the proposal said the mailers were another sign of the city’s true intent: to bend to the wishes of developers, regardless of the future consequences.
Residents of the Old Southeast were among those who received the mailer. That neighborhood is around Salt Creek, where a Miami developer has proposed a $2 billion construction project contingent on changes to the density limitations. The project would provide both high-end and affordable housing.
“That is just textbook big money trying to get a town to do what they want,” Suncoast Sierra Club executive director James Scott told the Tampa Bay Times before the vote. “It’s a step in the wrong direction.”
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.
Blackmon, Wheeler-Bowman and Gabbard all said the contributions didn’t affect their votes. Montanari and Figgs-Sanders did not respond to text messages before the meeting seeking comment.
Before they voted, council members endured a lengthy and at times pointed public comment period, where at least 40 people — an overwhelming majority of the speakers — argued against the proposal. Some speakers called into question the neutrality of the council members who had received money from the real estate lobby, suggesting they should recuse themselves.
"I will personally commit to doing fundraising for each of you, and I will raise more money than what you got from those Realtors,” said Andrea Andersen, who implored them to vote against the density proposal.
Other opponents questioned the wisdom of allowing more construction in areas that will flood.
“This vote how it stands now could drastically alter how our city addresses climate change for the next several decades," said Kelly Jones.
When it was their turn to speak, the council members who received the Realtor contributions, and some who didn’t, defended their integrity.
“I don’t appreciate anyone insinuating because I received money from developers that my vote is for sale," Wheeler-Bowman said. "I took my oath of office seriously. I have integrity.”
“None of my votes will be bought," Figgs-Sanders said.
In an attempt to table the density measure, Council member Darden Rice made a motion to delay the vote until the city’s long-rang plan, St. Pete 2050, was further along. That motion failed 3-5, with the five council members who had received money from the Realtor’s group voting it down while Rice, Gina Driscoll and Amy Foster voted in favor.
Rice crossed over on the subsequent motion, to approve the new density rules.