St. Pete Beach mayoral hopefuls talk hometown democracy listen03/04/11 Kate Bradshaw
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The Tampa mayorâ€™s race may have grabbed the lionâ€™s share of headlines in recent months, but communities throughout Tampa Bay have their own political showdowns in the coming days. Next week, one Pinellas Beach will pick its next mayor in a race that may shape the future of the town.
Itâ€™s the site of a pricey legal showdown between developers and residents who donâ€™t want to see their community turn into Miami Beach. Four candidates, including the incumbent, are vying to be St. Pete Beachâ€™s next mayor. The candidates â€“ minus the incumbent, Mayor Mike Finnerty â€“ duked it out Thursday night in St. Pete Beachâ€™s quiet Pass-A-Grille neighborhood. Much of the debate revolved around the question of whether voters should be allowed to weigh in on proposed changes in the cityâ€™s land use plan. Mayoral candidate Bruce Kadoura said absolutely.
"Bottom line is this; do you trust the city commission who, in my opinion, are bought, sold, and paid for by the large hotel district, the large hotels, then give them the right to vote. Give them....just give it away. But if you, like I, believe they are not going to act in your best interest, only in the large hotel districts interest, then you need to vote. You need to keep that right to vote."
There was obvious division over the issue in the crowded room. In 2006, St. Pete Beach adopted a law requiring changes to the cityâ€™s comprehensive land use plan to go to voters, a law known as Hometown Democracy. In January, a judge ruled in favor of Kadoura in a lawsuit against the city over the way a modified plan was presented to voters in 2008. Legal fees for this and a related suit have since cost the city close to a million dollars. Mayoral candidate Steve McFarlin said the pricey court battle has crippled the city in its ability to provide basic services.
"If you took half of those legal fees and put them to our normal services, we'd be in great shape. Do you realize who we are in St. Pete Beach, what I always considered the paramount beach of this coast, and we don't even have the money to cut '...' value."
In 2010, St. Pete Beach became the poster child for a statewide Hometown Democracy law proposed on the November ballot. Voters rejected the law, also known as Amendment 4. An ad campaign portrayed St. Pete Beach as fraught with derelict hotels. Opponents claimed Hometown Democracy was a job killer since requiring a referendum every time a hotel wants to redevelop would freeze construction projects. Proponents denied this, claiming it would only apply to major changes. Candidate Will Jacoby said either way, the town needs a functional comp plan so business owners know whether they can redevelop.
"The comp plan is something that we need. We need to have that so people can know what to do with their property, whether it be a vacant property or a property that someone wants to redevelop."
St. Pete Beachâ€™s mayoral election is Tuesday. Also on the ballot are four extremely contentious questions. Three ask whether the city should stop requiring a referendum on changes to the comprehensive plan, community redevelopment districts, and building height. Kadoura said to vote yes is to give up citizensâ€™ rights to determine the future of their own community.
"If anybody thinks that voting yes to give the city the authority to basically build the large hotel district out into gigantic structures that are going to be completely self-contained with their own shopping, their own restaurants, their own facilities. If you think that that's going to develop this community, you're wrong. It's not going to happen. Take a look at Clearwater Beach, take a look at Atlantic City. Take a look at Miami Beach. Those communities have a core hotel district. Everything around it is blighted and pretty much a ghetto. Atlantic City is a great example."
McFarlin said voting no would force businesses to sit in limbo and render the city, already facing extremely challenging times, unable to compete with other beach towns in the state.
"We're in trouble right now and we've got to do something to show these people those bodies with money are coming somewhere sometime. These empty businesses, if we don't put a comp plan in place to get these ridiculous '...' off the book. Go forward, now just visualize this for a minute, you see all of those empty businesses? They're going to lower their standards, they're going to lower their rent just to get some cash and you can't blame them. They've been sitting here waiting and waiting, and that's going to look like a flea market."
Critics say the other issue with putting proposed land use changes on the ballot is that the average voter might have a tough time with the highly technical wording typical of such amendments. Kadoura said that could be remedied by clearer language and bullet points, but Jacoby said he doesnâ€™t think so.
"I challenge you. I'd like to see a show of hands of anybody that thinks they could tell me what is in a comprehensive plan. Because if you can, you've been in planning somewhere because I do know there's one person in this room that has been in a planning department. You can't do it, folks."
The fourth proposed charter amendment on Tuesdayâ€™s ballot would change the criteria by which the city deems citizen petitions valid. The city now approves those that ten percent of voters have signed. The referendum would require petitions to have ten percent of voters from each of the cityâ€™s four districts. The St. Pete Beach election takes place Tuesday, March 8th. Other Pinellas towns voting that day are Treasure Island, Gulfport, Belleair Beach, Kenneth City, Madeira Beach, Tarpon Springs, South Pasadena, and Seminole.