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Where Citizens Decide Growth Changes

St. Pete Beach TEST CASE?: Voters have reversed course in St. Pete Beach after voting in 2006 to require comp plan changes to go on the ballot. The measure produced a welter of litigation, and the voters recently pared back the referendum law. The city now budgets $200,000 a year for legal fighting over development-related referendums. [Photo: Ray Stanyard]

‘So Much Irony Here'

One community has experimented with citizen approval of land-use changes. Now the forces allied against Amendment 4 want to make it the poster child for their campaign.

In 2004, St. Pete Beach city commissioners approved changes to the city's comprehensive-land plan to encourage redevelopment of the city's dated commercial property sector. What ensued in the city of 10,000 is a war, still ongoing, that will be highlighted by foes of the Florida Hometown Democracy in this year's fight.

Following the commissioners' decision, a portion of the citizenry led by the Citizens for Responsible Growth group, fearful the city would be ruined by tall, dense, south Florida-like development, petitioned to reject the changes and require voter approval on all future changes to the city's comp plan. The city spent $250,000 in a losing court fight to prevent a vote, and the Citizens for Responsible Growth prevailed in a special election, giving St. Pete Beach voters power no other city voters in Florida had.

Voters discovered what amending a comp plan is like. One example: In 2008, the state required all localities to annually update their capital improvements plans such as water plants — whether they had any planned or not. Cities such as St. Pete Beach that had nothing planned simply added a line to that effect. But St. Pete Beach voters had to go to the polls to approve a five-year capital improvements budget line of zero. Quizzically, a quarter of the voters rejected it.

City Manager Mike Bonfield says the city now spends a lot of time explaining such housekeeping items to voters. Because special elections cost $20,000 apiece, the city chooses to ignore deadlines for some state-mandated changes until the next regularly scheduled election.

Meanwhile, a counter group of St. Pete Beach property owners and developers launched a petition drive of its own, using a different section of city law that allows citizens to propose and enact ordinances. Plenty of cities have such laws on their books. Their 175-page comp-plan change, condensed to a 75-word summary for the ballot, creates a hotel redevelopment area like the one rejected in the earlier referendum but with modifications to allay residents' concerns.

In a special election in 2008, it passed. And the losing side — the other citizens group that had successfully sought to bring comp-plan changes before the voters — promptly sued to overturn the will of the voters. Kenneth Weiss, an attorney fighting to nullify that vote, says the developers in the ballot summary "lied to the voters" and didn't comply with growth management law. Voters weren't told height and density would triple, for example, and that impact fees would be waived, Weiss says. The fight in St. Pete Beach "has nothing to do with Hometown Democracy. Zero."

Ross Burnaman
"I think people understand how corrupt our government is."
— Ross Burnaman
Says City Manager Bonfield: "The people now suing the city over the election are the same people who sued the city to have the right to an election. There's so much irony here."

The city has spent $250,000 litigating the latest ground. Ryan Houck, executive director of Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, the business-funded group opposing Hometown Democracy, says St. Pete Beach proves Hometown Democracy "is not designed to give voters a voice. It's designed to stop growth regardless of what the voters say."

Ross Burnaman, co-author of Hometown Democracy, says St. Pete Beach isn't a true test case of his brainchild. Burnaman, who is active in the case against the developers there, says that the charter ploy the developers used wrongly skipped hearings and reviews required by growth management that would continue to be required under Hometown Democracy. "Under Hometown Democracy, you would not be able to do what they did," he says.

Plus, he adds, what the majority decides in a referendum under Hometown Democracy is not necessarily the final say. All the existing administrative and court remedies available now continue to exist if Amendment 4 passes, he says.

St. Pete Beach budgets $200,000 a year for the legal fighting — the equivalent of three police officers or firefighters. Bonfield says even if the economy allowed development, investors likely would stay away from St. Pete Beach because of the risk. The city, given the uncertainty in court, plans to issue any approvals with a proceed-at-your-own-risk warning.

In November, St. Pete Beach voters returned to the polls and decided, 58%-42%, to pare back the referendum law, restricting it to major issues such as changes affecting height, density, intensity and use.