From the St. Pete Times
Ruling revives votes on growth
An appeals court says St. Pete Beach voters should get the chance to weigh in on the city's development.
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff WriterAugust 19, 2006
St. Pete Beach voters should get the chance to decide the direction of their community's growth, despite the objections of city officials, an appeals court ruled Friday.
In one of a burgeoning number of conflicts over growth across the state, a group called Citizens for Responsible Growth has battled St. Pete Beach officials for more than a year over land-use plan changes that would allow 20-story buildings and other controversial development in the beachfront community.
The group, which opposes the plan changes, had collected enough petitions for a referendum vote last March on changing the City Charter. But the city sued to block the election. And a developer who said the proposed referendum was costing him money by delaying his project sued Citizens for Responsible Growth.
In December 2005, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Walt Logan sided with the city, striking down three of the four proposed referendums.
On Friday, though, the 2nd District Court of Appeal said Logan was wrong and ordered that all four referendum items be placed on the ballot.
"The citizens of St. Pete Beach are entitled to express their views on how their City Commission should handle land use problems," Judges E.J. Salcines, Charles T. Canady and Darryl C. Casanueva stated in the 11-page unanimous ruling.
City officials were reluctant to comment on whether they will now schedule a vote or appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.
"We haven't even discussed that," said City Manager Mike Bonfield, who estimated that the city has spent "in the neighborhood of $150,000" on attorneys' fees so far.
The ruling shows that "people can take control," said Ken Weiss, lead attorney for Citizens for Responsible Growth. "People can fight city hall and win."
It also encouraged the leaders of the Florida Hometown Democracy movement. They are collecting petition signatures to amend the state Constitution to require referendum votes on any local government land-use plan changes. So far, they have collected 100,000 of the 611,000 signatures they need.
"I think the appeals court got it right: All political power is inherent in the people," said Ross Burnaman, who is helping spearhead the Florida Hometown Democracy drive.
Burnaman and Weiss pointed out that similar battles have been cropping up across the state, in locales as diverse as Ormond Beach and Yankeetown, as voters have tried to stop local governments from allowing growth that conflicts with existing land-use plans.
The St. Pete Beach ruling coincided with a similar one in a case across the state. A Palm Beach Circuit judge ruled Friday that a referendum on land-use changes sought by a Lake Worth group called Save Our Neighborhood should go to the voters.
In St. Pete Beach, Citizens for Responsible Growth has been battling plans that its president, former Mayor Terry Gannon, said would turn the quiet beach community into a "concrete canyon."
The group sought to change the charter to require that voters would have to approve any plan changes, any community development plan and any increase in the city's building height limits.
It also sought a requirement that any comprehensive plan or plan amendment affecting five or fewer parcels of land would have to be approved by a unanimous vote of the City Commission.
Judge Logan ruled that only the proposal to require unanimous commission votes on small land-use changes could go on the ballot. Both sides appealed to the 2nd District.
Friday's ruling pointed out that state law prohibits referendums only on land-use changes involving five parcels or fewer. That means it's all right for a city's charter to require voter approval on anything larger, the judges said.
Gannon predicted that city officials will continue fighting against the referendum. "I don't think they'll stop with the Supreme Court," Gannon said. "I think they'll go all the way to Mars