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Steve McFarlin: St. Pete Beach pays, but ‘rampant litigation’ far from over

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by
Steve McFarlin

The City of St. Pete Beach recently paid nearly $500,000 to settle one of many lawsuits brought by Ken Weiss and Tim Weber in their quest to halt development on the barrier island. City officials believed the payout would finally help put an end to the rampant litigation that has plagued St. Pete Beach for nearly a decade.

There’s one problem – even after the payment, the lawsuit is far from settled.

The city’s attorney did not obtain a judge’s final settlement order, creating a loophole that Weiss and Weber are now exploiting to continue their costly crusade. This is the latest volley in a battle that has involved more than a dozen lawsuits; consumed more than $2 million in taxpayer money, and has prevented the city from implementing its voter-approved comprehensive land use plan.

Empowered and, ironically, financed by St. Pete Beach taxpayers, Weiss and Weber have taken their anti-growth battle to Treasure Island and Madeira Beach, mounting similar legal attacks against those cities’ comprehensive plans in more attempts to stop development.

The recent victory in Madeira Beach exemplifies the approach needed to prevail against these unending attacks. Judge Thomas Minkoff found that the city properly passed ordinances that paved the way for the multimillion Town Center project. The city of Madeira Beach now has won two of four lawsuits brought by Weiss and his group.

I’ve been proud to call St. Pete Beach home for more than two decades and was honored to serve as Mayor from 2011-2014.

Amid the legal maneuvering spread over the tenures of five St. Pete Beach mayors and more than a dozen commissioners, the underlying problem is simple: St. Pete Beach is built out. Allowing business owners, most of them locals, to redevelop their properties would bring much-needed revenue to city coffers and sustain our position as a tourist destination.

As city leaders, we came up with a comprehensive land use plan that was a compromise for both sides, limiting new development to 12 stories of height in an area already occupied by large hotels.

Weiss and his group failed to convince voters to reject the plan in 2008. Soon after it was approved, their legal challenges began. The city stood its ground, and we eventually prevailed in 2011 and reapproved the plan. But the litigation didn’t stop.

The lawsuit related to the $500,000 settlement was undertaken in another effort to disrupt the city’s land use planning. The lawsuit alleged that the city violated the Sunshine Law by discussing Weiss’ ongoing legal challenges to the comprehensive plan in closed-door meetings. The city, and its attorney at the time, Bryant Miller Olive, believed the city was correct in doing so because case law at the time supported holding “shade” meetings that involved strategic discussions with counsel about legal issues.

In 2012, a trial judge agreed and ruled in the city’s favor, but Weiss and Weber appealed and won at the appellate level. In a case that more narrowly defined how a strategy session held under the Sunshine Law is interpreted, an appellate court in 2014 said the city should have had parts of its discussions in a public forum.

The city decided not to appeal – and has been approaching other battles with Weiss with the same reluctance. Commissioners and the city attorney believed they could reason with Weiss, a tack that they hopefully now realize was a mistake given he has continued a lawsuit he was paid to “settle.”

Meanwhile, the city is suing its former attorneys at Bryant Miller Olive over advice provided in the case about the Sunshine Law – advice based on case law at the time. The shade meetings were needed in order for us to develop a cost-effective strategy with our counsel to deal with the wide-ranging legal attacks on the city’s comprehensive planning process.

The frustrating thing for me is that this legal harassment is undermining the democratic process and holding up implementation of a comprehensive plan that establishes reasonable parameters for growth. Instead of moving forward, the city is being held hostage by lawyers using the courtroom to accomplish their own personal objectives.

With city elections coming in March, voters need to elect candidates who will stand up to this small but disruptive anti-growth contingent.

Well-intended negotiations have proven to be a failed strategy. The leaders of our beach cities must have the fortitude to fight this form of legal harassment, as demonstrated by Madeira Beach.

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Steve McFarlin, a local businessman, is a longtime resident of St. Pete Beach and served as its mayor from 2011-2014.

 

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