September 17, 2010

Amendment 4 - the "Case Study"

Opponents of Amendment 4 cite St. Pete Beach as a "case study" into "the evils of Amendment 4."  They say that the 10,000 person community became mired in endless litigation, just a small taste of what would happen with a statewide mandate.

The St. Petersburgh Times sums up the background for us:
In 2005, St. Pete Beach's five-member City Commission was considering changing its development plan, the comprehensive plan. The commission was debating incentives to lure additional hotels that could increase the density of a development and change the allowed uses.

The talk of change didn't sit well with many residents, who collected petitions to get a series of charter amendments on the city ballot that would require voter approval for height increases and other changes to land use plans.

From there it got contentious. The city sued to stop the vote, saying the proposed charter amendments violated state land use law. A developer also sued, saying the petition process was costing him money.

The city lost its case on appeal, and in November 2006, voters narrowly approved most of the changes to the City Charter. The results: St. Pete Beach became the first town in Florida where residents directly controlled development decisions. Voters also elected two members of Citizens for Responsible Growth to the City Commission, giving them a majority.

That prompted a pro-developer group to start its own petition drive and propose its own amendments to the city's comprehensive plan. The city's elected officials — who had gone from being largely pro-development to anti-development — tried to stop them.

It got even more contentious. There were more lawsuits.

Then, another election, another change of power, and eventually, another referendum. This time, the pro-development side won.

The upshot — four years after city voters decided they wanted control over land use decisions, the entire process has been sidetracked and stymied by lawsuits and politics, petition drives and egos.
Right off the bat, something jumps out at me; voters introduced the referenda, and not the local governments.   Amendment 4 stipulates that local governments put up the referenda, not politicial action committees or concerned citizens.

Here are the relevant St. Pete Beach laws:
Section 3.15: Voter approval required for approval of comprehensive land use plan or comprehensive land use plan amendment. 
A comprehensive plan (“Plan”) or comprehensive plan amendment (“Plan Amendment”) (both as defined in Florida Statutes Chapter 163) shall not be adopted by the City Commission until such proposed Plan or Plan Amendment is approved by the electors in a referendum as provided by Florida Statute Sec-
tion 166.031 or by the City Charter or as otherwise provided by law. Elector approval shall not be required for any Plan or Plan Amendment that affects five or fewer parcels of land or as otherwise prohibited by Florida Statutes including but not limited to Florida Statutes Section 163.3167.

Section 3.16: Voter approval required for approval of or effectiveness of community redevelopment plan. 
A community redevelopment plan as defined in Florida Statutes Section 163 shall not be adopted by the City Commission until such proposed community redevelopment plan is submitted to a vote of the electors by referendum as provided by Florida Statute Section 166.031 or by the City Charter.

Section 3.18: Voter approval required for increase in allowable height of structure. 
No amendment to the City’s Land Development Code providing for an increase in the allowable height (as defined by the Land Development Code) of any structure (as defined by the Land Development Code) shall be adopted by the City Commission until such amendment is submitted to a vote of the electors by referendum as provided by Florida Statutes Section 166.031 or by the City Charter.
The article actually identifies the key difference between what St Pete Beach had, and what Amendment 4 is:
Blackner walked PolitiFact Florida through how she says the new process would work.

Say a developer proposes an amendment to the comprehensive plan to build a condo high-rise in the middle of town. Currently, an application would be submitted to the local government that has jurisdiction; the local government would follow its approval process — two public hearings, etc.; and then the state Department of Community Affairs would be asked to sign off on the amendment. None of that would change.

But if the developer gets his approvals, Amendment 4 would add one more step. Voters would either ratify or veto the developer's plans at the next regularly scheduled election.

What's critical to note in St. Pete Beach's case is that citizens themselves proposed amendments to the comprehensive plan — an end-run of the process established by state law.
In other words, what happened in St. Pete Beach was that citizens introduced referenda before there was actually a change of plan created by the local government, a situation that Amendment 4 does not create.

So what really happened in St. Pete Beach? Here's the basic narrative:

Back in 2007, Save Our Little Village (SOLV), a politcal action committee, submitted 6 ordinances by initiative.  This led to SOLV filing suit to compel the city to submit these measures to voters. 

But SOLV's victory in getting its initiatives on the ballot led to a lawsuit; in Pyle vs. the City of St. Pete Beach, a citizen claimed that four of the six ballot summaries were "false, misleading, and deceptive."  But by the time the suit was filed, the election was technically under way (absentee ballots had already been distributed) so the Court left the items on the ballot.  The Court pointed out that voters could reject the items having inaccurate summaries on that merit, or for any other reason.

That led to the next lawsuit, on the same issue, when voters approved the four initiatives in question.  A fourth lawsuit was filed, stating that the 4 ordinances (one created a countywide land use plan, the other three amended Land Development Regulations)  did not comply with the existing comprehensive plan.  A fifth lawsuit was filed, claiming that sections 3.15, 3.16 and 3.18 created an additional arm of the government, while a sixth lawsuit challenged the validity of the current comprehensive land use plan.

Now, Citizens for Lower Taxes is correct when they say St. Pete Beach was mired in lawsuits. The city was sued - but none of these suits are the results of anything mandated by Amendment 4.

But don't take my word for it; Ed Ruddencutter, former vice-Mayor St. Pete Beach, wrote in a letter to current vice-Mayor and Amendment 4 opponent Jim Parent:
St. Pete Beach has NEVER had a serious ballot issue in accordance with what you call our, "our mini-amendment 4 experiment here in SPB", also known as City Charter Section 3.15. The SOLV comprehensive plan vote was a citizen initiative petition, in accordance with City Charter Section 7.02, and had nothing to do with our requirement for a vote on Comprehensive Plan amendments. There has never been a Section 3.15 vote on a plan change that affected serious changes on land use, height, density or intensity. The lawsuits were as a result of a Section 7.02 vote only.

Amendment 4 does not state that citizens can change the local land use code by referendum; it only mandates that once a land use change has gone through its process - which dictates that in fact the measures are drafted and reviewed by City officials - the voters have the final say on whether or not those measures can take effect.

The Florida Supreme Court described it in 2005:
...the proposed amendment at issue in this case alters only one step in an already established process.  It does not give the public the power to establish policy, collect funds, administer those funds, or adjudicate liability. - SC04-1134
Interestingly, this is the exact document linked by the Say No To 4 website, only they conclude that the court finding indicated that it adds all kinds of complexity to the process.

The "case study" cited by Citizens for Lower Taxes does not, in fact, stand up under close scrutiny. 

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant blog! Citizens for Lower Taxes continue to use St. Pete Beach as their reason for voting NO on Amendment 4 when all along it is comparing apples to oranges and grasping at straws.