Pro-hotel group forms to fight beach referendum

It aims to raise $250,000 to spread its message. Also, a court won't revisit its earlier ruling against the city.

Published September 10, 2006

ST. PETE BEACH - A new player - a pro-hotel political action committee - entered the ongoing controversy over beach district redevelopment Wednesday.

The new PAC, the Alliance for a Balanced Community, is planning a $250,000 "education campaign" to generate support for development rules that would allow higher and denser development along the beach.

The same day, the city learned its request for a rehearing on related referendum questions was denied by the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Tampa.

The city wanted the court to revisit its ruling that a number of referendum questions relating to development issues must be decided by voters.

The court was apparently unmoved by the city's concern that the court's ruling was confusing and possibly in violation of state law. The city has received an amended order that clarifies some legal points, but does not change its intent: that the development issues must be put to a citywide vote.

Still at issue is when the referendum election will happen.

Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark has refused to put six referendum questions on the November ballot, citing continuing legal actions by the city that could negate the result of the election.

Mayor Ward Friszolowski reported Friday that he and other city officials have not been able to reach a compromise with the elections office that would allow at least some of the referendum questions to appear on the ballot.

It was not clear Friday whether the court's decision would alter the elections office decision.

Meanwhile, the city is exploring other options, including holding its own election. The earliest the questions could appear on a regular ballot would be March, according to the elections office.

The referendum questions are the result of petitions circulated by another PAC, Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG), which is concerned that new development rules would adversely affect the character of the city.

Because of the pending referendum, state law dictates that the new comprehensive plan and planned development district rules cannot be enforced unless ratified by voters.

The referendum questions ask voters to repeal two ordinances, one creating the city's comprehensive plan and the other establishing a special planned development zoning district. In addition, voters will be asked to approve charter amendments requiring voter approval of any changes to the city's comprehensive land use plan or community redevelopment plan, or any increases in building heights, as well as requiring a unanimous commission vote for land use changes affecting smaller properties.

If approved, the city will be required to rewrite its comprehensive plan and give voters veto power over any proposed changes.

The new PAC is opposed to the proposed changes. The group is led by Tim Bogott, president and CEO of Tradewinds Island Resorts, and Gary Renfrow, owner of the Alden Beach Resort.

The group favors major redevelopment along the beach that would encourage hotels instead of condominiums. In its filing with the city it declared its intent to oppose the proposed charter amendments, ballot issues and challenges to the comprehensive plan.

"The PAC's mission is to educate the citizens as to long-term benefits of the comprehensive plan already approved by the city, the Pinellas Planning Council and the state Department of Community Affairs," says Renfrow. "We want to provide the true facts, not the lies and exaggerations of the CRG."

Renfrow's PAC is planning a "kickoff" meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at the Tradewinds Sandpiper Hotel, 6000 Gulf Blvd.

The meeting will report the status of the referendum election, as well as discuss each petition and the "consequences" to the community if they are passed.

Renfrow said the PAC plans to raise about $250,000 for the public education campaign and already has substantial amounts pledged by hotel, motel and business owners along the beach.

Meanwhile, the city also plans to mount an "education" campaign prior to the referendum election.

"We have a duty to inform and educate the voters as to what issues are," says Friszolowski. "They need to know the advantages and disadvantages and what we were trying to accomplish in the first place."