TREASURE ISLAND — A developer considering a large resort at the north end of Treasure Island can’t move forward unless city residents vote by referendum to increase the number of hotel rooms allowed.
That’s according to city code.
State law, on the other hand, prohibits the city from holding such a referendum, which would be seen as using a popular vote to approve a specific building project.
That was the conclusion of attorneys hired to review the city’s plans to hold a referendum on an ordinance to rezone a roughly 10-acre slice of waterfront property on the south side of Johns Pass.
For more than a decade, residents have kept a tight rein on the scale of new building in their small barrier island community after gaining the right to approve height and density increases by referendum.
City planners are rolling out a series of new zoning districts meant to make room for new hotels in tourist areas while maintaining the smaller scale of neighborhoods and residential condos.
Last year, voters approved some increases in allowable development for mixed-use retail and apartment construction in the downtown district with no violation of state rules.
But because the density increases in the north end district would apply almost exclusively to one property owner, holding a popular vote on the area would likely break the law, wrote attorneys with the GrayRobinson law firm in Boca Raton.
“It needs to be a generic plan. It can’t be site-specific, it can’t be property-specific,” Mayor Bob Minning said after reading the opinion.
Rather than lay out a preset list of guidelines in this part of the city, planners had suggested letting developers draft proposals for the site that commissioners would subsequently review.
If the plans called for more hotel rooms than currently allowable, the variance would have to be decided by referendum.
The problem is, under Florida law, voters only can decide legislative matters, that is, policies that affect a broad section of the city rather than individuals or specific properties, the attorneys wrote.
Cities such as St. Pete Beach have debated putting almost all development decisions up for a popular vote. A 2011 law and subsequent amendments sought to curtail this practice, keeping development decisions in the hands of elected officials.
Although developers with Greenleaf Capital have said they have no specific intentions for the commercial property at the foot of Johns Pass Bridge, they’ve shared ideas with city staff that included a 500-room hotel.
The property, where the popular Gator’s Café & Saloon stands, is currently zoned for only 22 hotel rooms per acre.
Residents of the nearby Key Capri condominiums have opposed bigger development at the island’s north end, claiming the area isn’t equipped to handle the higher volume of traffic a resort would generate.
Many warned city commissioners that their idea of outlining a new zoning district around this small swath of land amounted to “spot zoning,” or tailoring city code for the benefit of private interests.
“Basically, they’ve taken a landowner that bought several parcels of land and they are developing a land ordinance for that landowner,” said Rod Erskine, a seasonal resident at Key Capri.
Erskine called the legal opinion an “embarrassment” for the city, with the exception of Commissioner Alan Bildz, who opposed the plan.
The challenge for encouraging any viable, large-scale development on the north end is that the property just to the south is primarily residential, making it difficult to expand the zoning district to include a broader base of landowners.
Even if the city could find a way to widen the district to ensure a voter referendum wouldn’t be tied to a single landowner, former city planning board Chairwoman Heidi Horak says voters haven’t shown much favor for easing height and density restrictions elsewhere.
In a 2013 referendum concerning the downtown district, voters narrowly approved increases for residential apartments but rejected additional hotel rooms. “The electorate just does not tolerate large numbers when it comes to density increases,” Horak wrote in an email.
The commission plans to discuss alternatives for the north end district at a workshop meeting.