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Heated debate accompanies City Council vote on development in flood-prone areas

Margie Manning



Hurricane storm surge (Photo credit: NOAA)

The St. Petersburg City Council is moving forward with a plan to allow some development in flood-prone areas of the city.

The City Council voted to advance the controversial plan for the Coastal High Hazard Area, after a wide ranging, two-hour debate Thursday night that touched on climate change, hurricane preparedness and gentrification.

Twenty people spoke at a public hearing. About half of the speakers urged council members to delay their decision and wait for a broader discussion about land use in the city over the next three decades. Other speakers said the plan already has been the subject of several meetings and provides a thoughtful approach to regulated development.

The Coastal High Hazard Area, or CHHA, is the designation for sites where the property is below the elevation of the expected storm surge from a Category 1 hurricane. About 41 percent of the city of St. Petersburg is in the Coastal High Hazard Area.

About 41 percent of the city is in the Coastal High Hazard Area.

The multi-part plan would increase safety by establishing stronger building standards throughout the CHHA, said Liz Abernethy, director of planning and development services.

The plan allows targeted increases in development in about one-third of the CHHA, while continuing to prohibit any changes in the remaining areas, Abernethy said. It expands redevelopment opportunities and reduces redevelopment pressure in the remaining 60 percent of the city, and promotes sustainability and resiliency goals, she said. Developers of all new multifamily and hotel projects would be required to provide hurricane evacuation and re-entry plans, Abernethy said.

It does not automatically allow new development, but opens the way for developers to ask for new projects that would increase the number of dwelling units per acre, or density, of property in the CHHA, something they are currently prohibited from doing.

“We feel this policy will give us tremendous leverage in a discussion with any private developers looking to develop in this area,” said Alan DeLisle, city development administrator. “We think this is the right step forward for the city to protect its interests.”

Public voices

Some of the opponents who spoke Thursday night are part of the Old Southeast Neighborhood Association, which is in the CHHA and has been targeted for potential redevelopment. A survey of 141 residents found 85 percent support existing CHHA policy, according to a news release from the neighborhood association.

Bill Dahl, the association president, was among those who called on the council to delay changes. He said here should be a more complete discussion that also includes infrastructure and affordable housing issues as part of the Vision 2050 plan, a city-wide visioning process for what St. Petersburg can become over the next 30 years.

The building standards proposed in the CHHA plan are not innovative enough, said Amy Baxter, a member of the Old Southeast Neighborhood Association board.

“I’m deeply concerned about the lack of climate change solutions being considered in this policy,” Baxter said. “We know that sea levels will rise and storms will worsen over the coming years, and this policy is too short-sighted for the council to advance today.”

James Scott, a spokesman for the Suncoast Sierra Club, reminded council members that a potential hurricane is headed towards the Tampa-St. Petersburg area next week.

“This is a real risk for us long term. We have to do this smartly and comprehensively and in a way that prioritizes equity and resiliency,” Scott said. “I know there’s a lot of pressure to get this done now, but voting to move it to 2050 is not killing it or saying no. We are not necessarily against development in the CHHA, but it’s got to be done at a discussion and a forum where all the stakeholders are at the table, where we’ve got all the science on the table and we can all make these important decisions.”

In contrast, Jason Mathis, CEO of the Downtown St. Petersburg Partnership, called the proposed CHHA changes a “carefully tailored and targeted strategy that will allow for thoughtful growth in parts of the community we already have targeted for redevelopment.”

Mathis said the plan directs new development to the area’s employment centers and commercial corridors  — places like Carillon, the Skyway Marina District and the Innovation District.

“These new regulations will be especially important as we continue to strengthen our employment centers into vibrant spaces where individuals can not only work but also live and play, places where reliance on cars is minimized or eliminated, and where the purchasing power of employees during the day and residents during the evenings and weekends increases the availability of amenities like markets and restaurants,” said Alison Barlow, executive director of the Innovation District.

The proposed changes would expand the supply of housing overall, said Joe Farrell, vice president of public affairs for the Pinellas Realtor Organization. It also would address the need for hurricane hardening, especially in the CHHA.

“Without the economic incentive of someone to develop their property, they’ll stick with what they have, and what they have in those areas is not good enough,” Farrell said.

Prepping for the big storm

The CHHA plan ensures the city will be ready when the big storm comes, said City Council member Brandi Gabbard.

Properties in her district, including those along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street North, from 62nd Avenue North to Gandy Boulevard, primarily are older homes and commercial properties.

“When that big storm comes through, if we have not been doing everything we can to harden our building codes, that is going to be leveled,” Gabbard said. “We need these building codes now, we need to be building stronger, and if that big storm comes we need to be sure we have this in place so that what gets rebuilt is right for that area.”

Related: Community Voices: Clarity on the Coastal High Hazard Area

Limiting new multifamily projects in the CHHA would force developers to look for available land in higher areas, said Council member Robert Blackmon. “The higher land is traditionally Black neighborhoods that people were put into by policies of segregation,” Blackmon said. “You are essentially forcing out and gentrifying the Black community in historic Black neighborhoods and that’s not something I’m willing to stand for.”

Neither is Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders, one of two Black City Council members who lives next door to her parents’ home in an historically Black neighborhood.

“Gentrification won’t work for me. I want where I live. I want where I’ve grown up. I want to stay and I want to make sure I leave this land its legacy,” Figgs-Sanders said.

Council member Darden Rice was among the seven council members who voted to advance the CHHA plan, after successfully advocating for an amendment that eliminated the possibility for development on neighborhood collector streets, such as Shore Acres, Snell Isle, Pasadena and Coquina Key.

Council member Gina Driscoll cast the only no vote, agreeing with those who want to postpone the discussion to the Vision 2050 process.

Related: Community Voices: Curating higher density in the city’s Coastal High Hazard Area

The City Council will have another public hearing on the CHHA plan Oct. 8, before taking a final vote.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Alice Wakes

    August 21, 2020at8:27 pm

    Primarily business interests spoke in favor (two chamber of commerce, real estate, innovation district) and residents spoke against it. The city seems to believe that the only way to grow revenue is increase the housing tax base. It is really a bummer.

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