Lawsuit's strategy: better decisions
By JON WILSON
© St. Petersburg Times,
ST. PETERSBURG -- It's more than meets the eye.
On the surface, a neighborhood association's lawsuit against the city is expected to result in more landscaping for a new restaurant in the Tyrone commercial district.
But the implications go beyond the improved green space, said Steve Plice, president of the Jungle Terrace Civic Association, which brought the suit.
When the civic association sued this summer, the idea was to make city officials think twice about the way they make decisions in approving development projects.
"I think we're reaching that goal," Plice said this week.
At issue were variances -- departures from parking and green-space rules -- that the Environmental Development Commission approved so a Romano's Macaroni Grille could be built on a corner of the Sears parking lot at Tyrone Square Mall.
Jungle Terrace objected to the city departing from the usual development rules, but was turned down in a June appeal to the City Council. That left the courts as a final resort. Neither Sears nor Romano's was party to the suit.
But Romano's stepped in, offering to revise its site plan to add 16 landscaped islands in the parking lot to the original 20.
Romano's officials couldn't be reached early this week.
Plice said Jungle Terrace is working with the city to iron out the language of the agreement.
"We want it to say that the city will accept the revised site plan . . . and enforce that site plan as opposed to the one they approved, which was substantially less in terms of landscaping," Plice said.
Romano's also has offered to pay Jungle Terrace's legal fees, which are still undetermined, Plice said.
Julie Weston, the city's director of development services, vigorously defended city boards and staff members who make recommendations about variances. She said education and training as to what constitutes appropriate variance procedure is ongoing.
"I understand from listening to board and commission members that it's a difficult, difficult place to be. I have to give them credit," Weston said. "And I continue to invite folks from Jungle Terrace to petition the mayor to be on one of these boards or commissions.
Such panels as the Board of Adjustment and the Environmental Development Commission are composed of volunteers. City Hall staff advises them.
"I'm confident our staff follows the law regarding variances. I would expect some in Jungle Terrace to disagree, and that's fine," Weston said.
Weston also said she doesn't believe the city approves variances too easily. She said an outdated zoning code results in numerous variance requests, and that if the code were to be amended, "we would have far fewer requests."
The Jungle Terrace suit is viewed by its proponents as a harbinger of future action.
"It'll spread the word about how to work the system, and what your options are. You can insist on good development rather than acres of concrete," Plice said.
More watchdog elements may be in the works, he said.
The Council of Neighborhood Associations' leadership program is adding a component intended to educate activists about zoning, planning and the quasijudicial city boards that make decisions on developments.
And still on the burner is creation of a local group that would be similar to 1,000 Friends of Florida, a statewide organization that advocates growth management.
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