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After years of study and debate, St. Petersburg is poised to make substantial changes to building requirements and development regulations in the Coastal High Hazard Area, the 41 percent of the city that would be impacted by storm surge from a Category 1 hurricane. City staff has proposed the adoption of stricter building standards to make buildings in this area more resilient, while allowing for consideration of new construction with higher density and intensity than what is currently allowed. I fully support smarter, stronger building codes to address increasing environmental concerns such as storm surge and sea level rise. However, the loosening of development restrictions leaves out important citywide considerations that prevent me from casting a “yes” vote on that change at this time.
While the focus has been on the 41 percent of St. Petersburg in the Coastal High Hazard Area, the 59 percent of the city that is on higher ground has been largely ignored. Future development in this lower-risk area will be affected by our decision either way. It should be just as important to discuss and develop a plan to manage and even encourage development where it makes more sense to build. This is a significant consideration that is missing from the conversation.
There are also major infrastructure upgrades that the City must commit to in order to increase resiliency and support higher density in the Coastal High Hazard Area. As we have seen in places like Miami Beach, raising roads and installing pump stations is an enormous and expensive undertaking in addition to the normal upgrades that come with new development. 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.
Supporters of the changes to allow for higher density and intensity in the Coastal High Hazard area have centered their talking points on affordable housing. There are claims that the relaxed regulations are the only way to achieve more affordable housing. However, there are no requirements for affordable housing in the proposal. In a recent committee meeting one City Council Member even threatened the return of redlining if the proposed changes aren’t passed. This is the type of hysteria that we must avoid in a serious and thoughtful discussion. The stakes are too high, and the future of our city is too important.
I have suggested that we join Coastal High Hazard Area issue with the St. Pete Vision 2050 process so that we can create a comprehensive, cohesive plan for future development that respects that our neighborhoods are interrelated. I am open to a path to considering higher density on a case-by-case basis, but that path must include a holistic approach that values St. Petersburg as one city.
Gina Driscoll, St. Petersburg City Council Vice Chair/District 6