St. Petersburg City Council delays vote on growth plan until after November election

Article Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Times

By Michael Van Sickler

Published September 18, 2010 

ST. PETERSBURG The City Council voted Thursday to shelve a controversial plan to nullify the effects of a November ballot measure that would let residents, not elected officials, decide future growth changes.

For weeks, city officials had promoted a simplified map that would limit the number of land use changes that would require public approval if Florida Hometown Democracy's Amendment 4 is passed in November.

But before the public hearing, Mayor Bill Foster said he no longer supported the map and that he would consider vetoing it if the City Council approved it. He said the state was likely to overturn the vote.

"It's the lawyer in me," Foster said. "I always try to weigh the odds of success. Everything we've done to create this proposal has been brilliant, but it's not going to fly."

City officials created a new map as a way to visualize fewer land use categories. Currently, the city has 22 land use categories, such as residential high and low, industrial and commercial. Currently, a change would require only council approval. If Florida Hometown

Yvette Niemann unloads signs to protest the map created by the St. Petersburg council in order to blunt Hometown Democracy.

Democracy's Amendment 4 is passed by voters on Nov. 2, it would require such land use changes to be approved by voters.

The proposed map narrowed the 22 categories to five to try to blunt the law's effects in that fewer referendums would be needed. City staff estimated that nearly 90 percent of land use changes would go to referendum even with the map.

The state's Department of Community Affairs objected to the city's ploy. An Aug. 26 report said the city had no legal basis in establishing a second map and that the newer categories were too vague. Foster defends the newer map, calling it the best way to brace for November's ballot measure, which he said would be a disaster for development.

"The map would give us a great competitive advantage over every city in Florida," Foster said. "It makes us look very attractive to developers. It would have worked."

Foster said it became harder to vouch for the new map because of the attention it received from media sources like the St. Petersburg Times and neighborhood groups such as the Council of Neighborhood Associations.

"I'm looking at not just the monetary costs, but also at what this would do with our credibility with the community," he said. "There is a trust canyon we have to bridge."

Foster's move persuaded council members to back off it as well.

While the council voted unanimously to delay the vote on the map until after the election, council members like Karl Nurse, Jim Kennedy and Jeff Danner still said they supported it.

"I think the map is a good idea," said Danner. "It is something we need to have future discussions on."

Foster said he wants to wait to see if Amendment 4 passes. If it does, then he'll support the approval of the map, which would then require city and perhaps county voter approval.

The city's maneuvering drew the attention of Hometown Democracy activists. Before the public hearing, a handful of protesters carried signs of support for Amendment 4 on the steps of City Hall.

"The city is trying to thwart the will of the people," said Richard Sommerville, a 54-year-old Hometown Democracy activist who lives in Pasco County. "This map isn't real. It's a generalization. The city should allow the people to vote."

But with such an interest in the topic, the council pushed it to last on the agenda, so it wasn't discussed until 9 p.m. By that time, most of the activists had left and only a handful of residents who opposed the measure remained.

Former mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford showed up as well to oppose map and other proposed land use changes. "The public has not been involved in the process as envisioned and articulated by state law," she told the council. "These amendments have been rushed and it shows."