St. Pete Beach officials stunned by vote

They are worried about the logistics of needing
voter approval for many new building projects.

By CRISTINA SILVA
Published November 9, 2006

ST. PETE BEACH - Business leaders and city officials were still reeling Wednesday after residents approved a measure that made this small barrier island the first city in Florida to give residents control over where and how things can be built.

Residents approved three city charter amendment changes Tuesday that would give them final say on how tall buildings can be.

Any building taller than 50 feet would now have to go before voters in a referendum. Any major changes to the city's regulations on growth would also have to go on the ballot.

But since St. Pete Beach is the first city to give so much power to residents, they aren't quite sure how the voting process will work.

"This is something that no one else has gone through," said Mayor Ward Friszolowski, who did not support the amendment changes.

Voters also repealed a master development plan that would have allowed for hotels in the city to grow from five stories to 15.

That measure, which was decided by only 20 votes, is being manually recounted by county election officials.

Gary Renfrow, whose family has owned the Alden Beach Resort since 1969, said he was numb.

"There are just so many unknowns," said Renfrow, who has been waiting for four years to get city approval to rebuild his resort. "That is the frustrating part."

Many residents said they voted against the city's proposed plan because few were confident they really understood what was going to be built or how the plan would affect the area.

Lisa Robinson, a sales manager who voted yes on all six amendment questions, said she was worried her taxes would go up if the city became too crowded by new development.

"No one really understood the whole density issue," she said. "We were never against tourism. It was just, well, what do the residents get too."

Wednesday morning, her powder blue 1959 Oldsmobile was still covered in Vote Yes signs.

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727-893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.


[ ED.] Earlier Legal Action to Secure Right to Vote
 

        

Citizens 4, St. Pete Beach 0:
So, can the people vote now?

[SOUTH PINELLAS Edition]
St. Petersburg Times - St. Petersburg, Fla.
Author: HOWARD TROXLER
Date: Aug 22, 2006

Abstract (Document Summary)

St. Pete Beach joins a few other Florida communities where angry citizens are trying to take more power. They are early battlegrounds in a movement called "Hometown Democracy," which would create universal voter control in Florida. Hometown Democracy could reach the ballot as early as 2008.

The fight in St. Pete Beach started when the city proposed a "redevelopment plan" that would allow more density in some areas. The argument was that St. Pete Beach either had to get more dense to keep tourism, or else watch the old mom-and-pop beachfront motels convert to condos.

I would suggest, however, that the city charter of St. Pete Beach says that judgment belongs to the voters. So does the 2nd District Court of Appeal. If it is such a dumb idea to pass these changes to the charter, then make the case to the voters for not doing it.

********* END ABSTRACT ********

Citizens 4, St. Pete Beach 0:
So, can the people vote now?

[SOUTH PINELLAS Edition]
St. Petersburg Times - St. Petersburg, Fla.
Author: HOWARD TROXLER
Date: Aug 22, 2006

Maybe it's the dumbest idea ever.

Maybe the voters of St. Pete Beach aren't capable of making smart decisions about their city's growth.

Maybe the subject is too technical. Maybe, without an all- knowing City Hall to decide for them, they'll foul things up, even break the law.

Or maybe not.

Either way, here is the 24-karat, sing-it-from-the-mountaintop truth: They are absolutely entitled to try it.

That was the ruling - the correct ruling - last week from a state appeals court, which cleared the way for an election in St. Pete Beach to transfer power from City Hall into the hands of the voters.

A group called Citizens for Responsible Growth wants to change the city charter to provide direct voter control over long-term decisions about growth.

This is a big deal, and not just for St. Pete Beach. The idea of voters making their own growth decisions, instead of leaving it to city council and county commission types, is downright revolutionary for Florida.

St. Pete Beach joins a few other Florida communities where angry citizens are trying to take more power. They are early battlegrounds in a movement called "Hometown Democracy," which would create universal voter control in Florida. Hometown Democracy could reach the ballot as early as 2008.

The fight in St. Pete Beach started when the city proposed a "redevelopment plan" that would allow more density in some areas. The argument was that St. Pete Beach either had to get more dense to keep tourism, or else watch the old mom-and-pop beachfront motels convert to condos.

The opponents of higher density circulated a series of petitions to change the city charter.

They wanted voter control of all but the smallest changes to the city's comprehensive plan. Even the small changes would require a unanimous vote of the City Commission.

They also wanted voter approval for the redevelopment plan, and voter control over increased building heights.

The petitions got more than enough signatures to force an election.

At that point, City Hall might have said: "My goodness! There must be more opposition to our plans than we thought. Let us put our plans on hold, and conduct this election to see what the voters truly believe."

Instead, the St. Pete Beach City Commission voted to sue to keep the ideas off the ballot.

Officially, the city's position was that somebody had to make sure the petition ideas were legal. But you could tell that the petitions irked the heck out of City Hall.

Here was the gist of the city's case. Having a comprehensive plan is a big, messy deal, controlled by state law. You have to jump through lots of hoops. Putting everything up for election would make it impossible to obey the law.

In December, a circuit judge in Pinellas County threw three of the four petitions off the ballot. The one he left was the one requiring a unanimous City Commission vote for smaller changes.

The citizens appealed on the three petitions they lost. The city cross-appealed on the one petition it lost.

On Friday, the Second District Court of Appeal issued its ruling: All four ideas can go on the ballot. Citizens 4, City Hall 0.

Nothing about the petitions on their face violates state law, the court ruled. Cities can require elections if they choose.

"[T]he citizens of the city of St. Pete Beach," the court ruled, "are entitled to express their views on how their City Commission should handle land use problems."

Good.

Now we are back to where we were before St. Pete Beach spent $150,000 of taxpayer money trying to keep the citizens from holding an election to which they were entitled.

Like I said, maybe it's a dumb idea to have direct voter control of these things.

I would suggest, however, that the city charter of St. Pete Beach says that judgment belongs to the voters. So does the 2nd District Court of Appeal. If it is such a dumb idea to pass these changes to the charter, then make the case to the voters for not doing it.