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Aaron Sharockman
By Aaron Sharockman March 17, 2010

Voter control over land use issues has cost St. Pete Beach 'hundreds of thousands' in legal bills, group claims

Putting land use decisions directly in voters' hands will lead to an avalanche of lawsuits that is costly for taxpayers, says a group opposing a ballot initiative that would give voters more authority over those decisions.

Amendment 4, which will appear on ballots in November, essentially would give citizens veto power over major development proposals and land use changes.

Opponents to the amendment point to big legal bills in the 10,000-person town of St. Pete Beach as an example of the consequences of the measure. St. Pete Beach adopted a similar citizens' initiative process in 2006.

Since 2006, "the taxpayers of St. Pete Beach have had to pay hundreds of thousands in legal bills," says the group Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, an offshoot of Floridians for Smarter Growth. The groups are being funded by business interests, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Publix and statewide homebuilders.

As we mentioned in our earlier item on Amendment 4, there is a debate between supporters and opponents whether St. Pete Beach's experiences are analogous to the statewide ballot proposal. And while we plan to explore that analogy in a future Truth-O-Meter item, we still are examining the individual claims in the ad.

St. Pete Beach certainly has had its share of legal issues since voters narrowly adopted City Charter changes in 2006 that require voter approval on amendments to the city's road map for growth, the Comprehensive Plan. Some lawsuits were brought by the city, others were brought by the groups proposing the citizen approvals, others came from developers.

In September 2009, city commissioners noted that they were party to five different lawsuits related to the development approval process. At the end of November, the total was six.

Most of the lawsuits relate to the city's development approval process.

The most contentious suit is about a series of comprehensive plan amendments approved in 2008 that were believed to be friendly to developers. A group opposed to those amendments -- the same group that originally petitioned to create the voter approval process -- claims that the ballot questions were not worded properly.

What's the cost to taxpayers for all this litigation?

Ryan Houck, executive director of Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, told PolitiFact Florida that the total is nearly $700,000. That's out of the city's $20.4 million annual budget.

The city itself previously has provided differing estimates.

In January, the St. Petersburg Times reported that legal fees associated with the development lawsuits have cost the city more than $300,000, with the costs spread out over four years. That figure was based on statements made by St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield.

But on Feb. 23, 2010, City Attorney Susan Churuti (the former Pinellas County attorney) told city commissioners the legal fees associated with development lawsuits were "something in the range of $200,000."

Churuti, who works for the Tampa firm Bryant Miller Olive, said that was an unusually large amount of legal work for a town the size of St. Pete Beach.

"For the size of your jurisdiction, you got a lot going on," Churuti told commissioners. "It's not normal."

Churuti said that because of scheduled hearings, and other court actions, the total legal bill is sure to rise.

Because the numbers were so different, we went to the city's finance director, Elaine Edmunds, for an explanation. She referred us to Collette Graston, Bonfield's executive assistant. Graston has been asked to keep track of all the legal expenses related to the comprehensive plan lawsuits.

Including bills paid in March 2010, the city has spent a total of $734,000 on the development lawsuits, Graston said. The difference between the other city figures are most likely because they are old figures, or were in reference to only one particular case.

"You're not the first person to ask," Graston said. "And you won't be the last."

No matter the dollar figure, attorney's fees clearly have been a central discussion point at City Commission meetings. City Manager Mike Bonfield said the city has exceeded its legal budget several years in a row, almost entirely because of development related lawsuits. And one city commissioner last year proposed raising the tax rate slightly to add $50,000 to the city's legal budget. The reason? Primarily to fight the development lawsuits.

That's the point Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy is trying to make in its Internet ad. The group says the "the taxpayers of St. Pete Beach have had to pay hundreds of thousands in legal bills" fighting lawsuits related to contentious development approvals. The person tasked with keeping count says the bill is now $734,000. So we rate this claim True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

"Vote 'No', St. Pete Beach urges its own," St. Petersburg Times, Jan. 31, 2010

St. Pete Beach City Commission meeting, Feb. 23, 2010

Interview with Colette Graston, city of St. Pete Beach, March 17, 2010

Interview with Elaine Edmunds, city of St. Pete Beach, March 17, 2010

"VOTE NO on 4" campaign launches web video on Amendment 4, press release, March 10, 2010

St. Pete Beach FY 2010 budget

Video of St. Pete Beach City Commission meeting, Sept. 21, 2009

Interview with Ryan Houck, Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, March 16, 2010

Interview with Lesley Blackner, Florida Hometown Democracy, March 16, 2010

Interview with Mike Bonfield, St. Pete Beach City Manager, March 15, 2010

"Tax rates goes up, but will it be felt?" St. Petersburg Times, Sept. 22, 2009

"Citizens want more say? Good for them," St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 11, 2005

"St. Pete Beach contends with tidal wave of legal bills," St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 14, 2008

"City tiptoes around comprehensive plan," St. Petersburg Times, June 14, 2009

"St. Pete Beach moves forward on new redevelopment rules," St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 17, 2008

"St. Pete Beach vote will go forward with six questions," St. Petersburg Times, June 1, 2008

"Dueling citizens groups adopt rivals' tactics," St. Petersburg Times, March 9, 2008

"Attorney resigns in midst of distrust," St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 16, 2007

"Activists tip balance of power," St. Petersburg Times, March 19, 2007

"Foes of overdevelopment may file new lawsuit," St. Petersburg Times, Jan. 10, 2007

"Voters repeal redevelopment plan," St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 8, 2006

"Initiatives to go before St. Pete Beach voters," St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 23, 2006

"Ruling revives votes on growth," St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 19, 2006

"Redevelopment battle spawns a third lawsuit," St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 14, 2005

"St. Pete Beach will challenge new petitions," St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 13, 2005

"St. Pete Beach to challenge referendum," St. Petersburg Times, June 19, 2005

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Voter control over land use issues has cost St. Pete Beach 'hundreds of thousands' in legal bills, group claims

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