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Foes of overdevelopment may file new lawsuit

This time it's over Division 43, a development code allowing for large projects.

By CRISTINA SILVA
Published January 10, 2007


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A group of citizens who have spent the past two years fighting the City Commission is threatening to sue the city once again, this time over a zoning change voters approved in the November election.

Ken Weiss, a Treasure Island lawyer representing Citizens for Responsible Growth, a grass roots organization composed of St. Pete Beach residents opposed to over-development, sent a letter to the city last week demanding it not rezone any of the city's neighborhoods under a provision that would allow developers to build seven-story structures.

Weiss argues Division 43, a new type of zoning designation, is illegal because it allows for height restrictions that are inconsistent with the city's current development code.

But city officials counter that Weiss' claim has no legal merit and is simply an unfair attempt to halt construction at the Dolphin Village shopping center.

Developers are preparing an application asking the city to rezone the complex under Division 43 so they can rebuild the shops in the center and add a condominium tower alongside them.

Even more infuriating to Weiss' opponents are his claims voters did not fully understand the zoning change when they approved it.

For months the City Commission argued development statutes were too complex to put before voters, but last year Weiss and his clients did just that when they put six referendum questions on the November ballot that would make it difficult for the city to approve large construction projects, including an option that would allow residents to repeal Division 43.

At the time, Weiss argued the residents were smart enough to decide for themselves.

Residents voted in favor of most of the referenda, but opted to keep Division 43 in a close race decided by 38 votes.

"My understanding is that some of the voters were misled by the campaign literature," Weiss said Tuesday, adding that while political advertisements are part of the voting process, he still did not think Division 43 was legal.

City Manager Michael Bonfield said RMC Property Group of Tampa, the development firm interested in rebuilding Dolphin Village, never misrepresented their intentions. "I think it is very unfair to say that they were trying to hide something," he said.

RMC president Michael Leeds did not return several calls requesting comment for this article.

Division 43 is like any other zoning designation in the development code, which the city uses to decide what can be built where.

It allows for businesses to be built alongside residential property and can be applied to any area in the city larger than 1 acre where commercial property is already allowed.

Under Division 43, buildings can grow as high as 88 feet, so long as the project is built on a plot of land greater than 4 acres.

In his letter, Weiss references the comprehensive plan, a basic outline of how and where things are built.

But while city statutes dictate buildings can only grow to 50 feet above flood level, the comprehensive plan does not specify how tall a building can be.

Weiss said he does not want to move forward with litigation but, instead, wants City Attorney Timothy Driscoll to submit a written legal opinion that states Division 43 is not unlawful.

"The purpose of a city attorney is to provide legal advice and I don't understand the reluctance," Weiss said.

So far, Driscoll has declined.

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

[Last modified January 9, 2007, 20:42:04]


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