Florida Home Town Democracy St. Pete Beach Style
By Anne McKay Garris
Florida Home Town Democracy is the name of a proposal headed for a vote by the people of Florida in the next election. Basically it is a citizen initiated proposal that no city or county's comprehensive plan may be changed without a vote of its citizens. Last week, the Gazette talked about what elements would, or would not, come up for a vote in Clearwater if Florida Home Town Democracy becomes the law.
One version of Florida Home Town Democracy has already been tried by the small village of St. Pete Beach, located down the coast from Clearwater. In 2005 the St. Pete Beach Commissioners adopted some sweeping changes to the city's comprehensive plan. If put into effect the plan would have drastically changed the look and feel of the downtown area and the tourist zoned Gulf front. The plan reallocated density to allow high rise hotels along the beach and other changes in the downtown, raising the maximum height limit from 5 stories to 15, among other things.
Opposed to the changes, a group of citizens formed a political action group called Citizens For Responsible Growth. This group rapidly collected signatures on a petition to hold a referendum to rescind the latest changes to the Comprehensive Plan and also to allow citizens to vote on any future changes to the Plan which dealt with more than five acres. Included in the need for voter approval was any land development proposal that increased building height and any plans for a CRA (community redevelopment area). This initiative was passed by very small majority in 2006.
Even though the voters, exercising their new prerogative, approved several small changes to the Plan, such as standards concerning public education and definitions of the coastal high hazard areas, the probability remained that they would still vote against any growth measures that would allow redevelopment in the commercial areas. Those in favor of growth figured this would be costly in terms of the tourism industry and city income.
Another political action committee emerged. Calling themselves, SOLV for Save Our Little Village, they set out to convince the 10,000 residents that the city was doomed to economic disaster if the rescinded plan was not re-instated. This they did so effectively that, in 2008, they were able to elect people to office who placed a new referendum on the ballot. The new development plan passed by a large majority. It is similar to the one rejected in 2006. This plan increases the density in the commercial areas from 30 units per acre to 80 units per acre, and allows an increase in height from 60 feet to 146 feet from grade.
But that wasn't the end of it. Now there are two lawsuits against adoption of the plan, and another one declaring the referendum was not conducted correctly. Until these are settled, St. Pete Beach's growth is in limbo, at least in the small 20% commercial area of the 2.2 square mile island community. It could all become academic, however, if the voters of Florida approve the Florida Home Town Democracy initiative at the next election.
There are those who, weary of the excessive growth all over Florida, are not dismayed that this miniature Home Town Democracy experiment has brought non-growth to a small area. Others will point to it as an example of why citizens should not be allowed to vote on so vital a matter as how much space could be covered by cement, or how many people should be crowded into a given area by developers.
Eventually, the majority of the people will decide the issue, their determination limited by the rule of law which protects us all. This is called democracy. A messy, difficult, time consuming way of government. But still the best on earth.
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