© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2002
TREASURE ISLAND -- As an overflow crowd howled, city commissioners on Tuesday passed development rules that could clear the way for 100-foot-tall hotels on the beach.
"Very clearly, these proposed ... changes are the most divisive thing that's ever happened to this little city," said Allan Sansotta, a former city commissioner who lobbied against the commission's decision.
A coalition of residents seeking to preserve the community's low-rise profile collected more than 2,000 signatures to put a referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot that would give residents the ultimate say over beachfront construction. But a commission majority led by Mayor Leon Atkinson resolved to beat the referendum to the punch and change the law to its liking.
Tuesday night's 3-2 decision is by no means the final word in this drama.
The referendum's authors earlier in the day filed a lawsuit that seeks to stop the city from enforcing its new rules. Sunset Beach residents Ray Green and W. Michael Daughtry also want to prevent Treasure Island from issuing any permits under the more permissive land use regulations.
And in another lawsuit filed last week, Treasure Island resident Larry Hoffman is asking a Pinellas Circuit judge to remove the referendum from the ballot.
Voting for the height and density changes Tuesday were Atkinson, and Commissioners Butch Ellsworth and Barbara Blush. Commissioners Mary Maloof and Stephanie Lavino voted against the ordinance.
"I'm standing up for your right to go to the polls and vote, but I want you to realize what your vote will do," Maloof said. "It is going to have disastrous effects on our community."
Residents here have a history for passionately defending their waterfront. In the past 15 years, they have kept dogs off the beach and alcohol on it. On Tuesday, they described the commission's action as a slap in the face.
"You're going to be remembered for the legacy of litigation and divisiveness that you have brought to Treasure Island," said Ken Weiss, a Treasure Island resident and lawyer representing some pro-referendum residents.
Commissioners said they wanted to put new land development regulations in place to protect future commissions from an ordinance that would require approval from more than half the city's registered voters any time officials want to make height or density changes.
-- Times staff writer Amy Wimmer contributed to this story.