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Stormy controversy over development engulfs Madeira Beach

in The Bay and the 'Burg by

A proposal to build a multi-story complex with a hotel, condominiums, restaurant and parking garage has blown into a full-scale storm between some residents and Madeira Beach officials.

It’s a dispute that has grown increasingly nasty with the filing of ethics complaints and accusations of political corruption. The argument seems to have no middle ground for compromise because the two sides appear to agree on only two items – some type of development is needed, and the other side is made up of liars.

“They tell untruths,” Madeira Beach Vice Mayor Pat Shontz said. “I don’t care to hear their bullshit. … It’s the most dreadful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Joe Jorgensen, a member of Madeira Beach United, which was formed in part to fight the development proposal, said that, as people started looking into things, they found that things didn’t add up.

“People started to say, ‘They’re lying to us,’” Jorgensen said. Because commission votes on the issue have been unanimous, Jorgensen said, “The commission, people have started to call them the bobbleheads. … It’s sad what’s going on out here.”

The trigger point for the battle seems to have been a March 15 referendum. The referendum asked if voters wanted to change the city charter, or constitution, to allow the commission to sell city-owned property with a super majority vote of the Madeira Beach commission. The measure was defeated by a resounding landslide of 69 percent against the change to 31 percent in favor.

The problem, Jorgensen said, was that the commission failed to tell voters that the charter requires the approval of the electorate at a referendum to sell a city-owned property. The defeated charter change would have taken that right away from residents.

“It really upset people that they tried to pull a fast one on the voters,” Jorgensen said. That’s when Madeira Beach United was formed.

Then Madeira Beach United took on the proposed development. The development would affect two properties at the entrance to the city at the foot of the only bridge joining Madeira Beach to the mainland. The plan is to build two developments, one on each parcel, totaling 11 buildings. They would include a hotel, condominiums, a restaurant, retail, a marina and a parking garage.

Jorgensen said there’s no opposition to the development of the two parcels. In fact, he said, members of his group agree that the two sites need to be developed. They’re upset over the size of the proposal because it would destroy the small-town, beach community atmosphere of Madeira Beach and would bring in more traffic.

“I’m not opposed to low development in the downtown area,” said Jack Westman, a Wisconsin resident who owns property in Madeira Beach. He has written press releases for Madeira Beach United. “But to bring in massive development … It really would drastically change the lifestyle.”

Madeira Beach Mayor Travis Palladeno says the concerns are overstated. The hotel would only replace the number of rooms that have been lost in recent years with the closure of smaller vacation spots, like the Holiday Inn. And, he said, the tourists won’t bring in that much traffic. Tourists, he said, don’t spend time driving up and down the beach. They tend to walk or stay in one spot.

But members of Madeira Beach United are not convinced. They’ve hired a lawyer and started a petition drive to overturn a commission vote to adopt a development agreement governing the project. They need 810 signatures and have about 500, Jorgensen said. If they get enough signatures, the commission could retract its vote, or the petitioners could force the issue to a referendum to let voters decide whether to overturn the development agreement.

As the argument has become more heated, accusations have been thrown back and forth. Jorgensen said some activists have complained that Palladeno has been threatening and intimidating to those fighting the development proposal. It’s a charge Palladeno denies.

But there have been more serious accusations against Shontz, City Manager Shane Crawford, a city building official and the contractor who worked on a house that Shontz owns.

Jorgensen said he knew of a complaint that was lodged with the International City/County Management Association about Crawford although he was not sure of the contents of the complaint. And at least two ethics complaints have been filed with the state. Such documents are private until they are resolved.

Crawford could not be reached for comment. But Palladeno said he is “100 percent” behind him.

The other ethics complaint centers on Shontz and repairs to a house she bought. Shontz declined to comment, saying, “The charge is bullshit” and a product of “dirty, low-down politics.”

She added, “These people have the audacity to come into this city and cause trouble.”

Complaints have also allegedly been filed against the contractor who worked on Shontz’s property with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulations and the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. Neither agency could be reached for comment.

Then, there are the accusations of lying.

Jorgensen said Palladeno was not truthful when he told residents that a hearing had been held to discuss the March referendum. But no one showed up. But Jorgensen said a request under the public records law turned up no notice of such a meeting. That, he said, is when activists really started doubting their elected officials.

Palladeno said he’s used to opposition and controversy but wishes the activists would get their facts straight when they talk to other residents.

One example was a press release sent out nationally that referred to the March vote as “a referendum to approve the sale of city property to the developers.” That’s untrue, he said, because it was a wider proposal covering any city-owned property on Madeira Beach. And, there was no deal to sell anything to the developers.

Westman, who wrote the press release, agreed he could have been more exact in his wording. The referendum, he said, would have allowed the city to sell small city-owned parcels needed for access to the developers.

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