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Community Voices: A bigger vision for the Coastal High Hazard Area

Frances Gatz

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Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.

St. Petersburg City Council’s public hearing and final vote on two amendments to our Coastal High Hazard Area (CHHA) plan is scheduled for Thursday (Oct. 8).

The Council’s amendment to increase building standards in the CHHA is a reasonable step; however the amendment to allow unspecified density increases in the CHHA remains problematic.

At the Aug. 20 Council’s CHHA hearing, some Council members expressed concern that a “no” vote on the density amendment would somehow create climate gentrification in their districts, or hamper progress on affordable housing, both important issues. But I believe that these council members are being presented with a false choice. There is no data that would lend credence to these fears. We need factual information on which to base our decisions and to help us create policies that minimize any adverse effects.

One of the Urban Land Institute’s stated best practices offered to the Council was to prioritize development on higher ground. How could select neighborhoods located on higher ground benefit from increased investment and renewal? What policies can help assure that these projects provide affordable housing and serve citizen interests in these less vulnerable parts of the city better situated for development?

I encourage the Council to vote “no” on this amendment and instead take these actions before proceeding on increased density in the CHHA:

Complete a comprehensive vulnerability assessment and infrastructure plan for St. Petersburg to address stronger storms and sea level rise.

Begin ongoing data collection and research to identify areas vulnerable to gentrification, and populations susceptible to displacement so that policies can be anticipated to address these issues should they occur.

While the density amendment is being defended by stating that increases in density of CHHA development would be approved on a case-by-case basis, what criteria would be used to evaluate these projects? We have yet to complete a comprehensive plan to address sea level rise and stronger storms to guide decision-making on these approvals.

Why the cart before the horse? We don’t even know the right questions to ask! The City of St. Petersburg should have a plan, a timeline, the cost, and the funding mechanism to ensure that we are ready to do our part before considering higher density in these vulnerable areas.

Other reasons that a decision regarding density is premature:

Proceeding to approve development without an understanding of its impact may limit or make impossible the positioning of important infrastructure to mitigate flooding or surge damage.

How will high priced coastal condo developments serve the vital need for affordable and workforce housing if addressing this need is not incorporated into the approval of CHHA projects?

If as the proposed density amendment states, new development in the CHHA will “result in the use of [only] existing infrastructure” but a future comprehensive plan dictates the additional infrastructure costs, how will new projects contribute after commitments to developers have been made? Are citizens at large stuck paying the tab?

How do we know that the density amendment will not jeopardize St. Pete’s Community Rating and National Insurance discount of 25% for properties in Special Flood Hazard areas? This question doesn’t get asked, yet homeowners’ insurance could skyrocket.

The final draft of St. Pete’s Vision 2050 is due out on Oct. 22, and with it a range of draft recommendations no doubt important for CHHA decision making as well as fulfilling the need for affordable housing. Decisions regarding future development should reflect our values and priorities. St Pete should heed the reality of our times. While other communities spend billions to relocate residents from flood areas, do we really want to do the opposite?

Some Council members are tired of seeing this item on their agenda, and are being urged to pass it just so they can “move on.” This would be a huge mistake, making St Pete an outlier compared to other progressive communities that are taking a more thoughtful approach.

The safety and prosperity of our city hangs in the balance.

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3 Comments
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3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    David Watson

    October 7, 2020 at 2:52 pm

    The author is to be commended for such a thoughtful and detailed presentation of the questions, problems and possible solutions associated with CHHA. I too hope the Council stops and takes a hard look before just ‘moving on’.

  2. Avatar

    Georgia Earp

    October 7, 2020 at 3:54 pm

    I agree that a comprehensive vulnerability assessment and infrastructure plan for St. Petersburg to address stronger storms and sea level rise is of critical importance. And, “While other communities spend billions to relocate residents from flood areas, do we really want to do the opposite?” hits the nail on the head!

  3. Avatar

    Andrew F Foertsch

    October 8, 2020 at 9:47 am

    I see thie passing of this as a blatant attempt to destroy a vibrant neighborhood so a greedy developer can make billions while displacing people who have created homes and a life.

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