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St. Pete planning commission rejects development plan for flood zones

Margie Manning

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U.S. Navy photo by Jim Books

A plan that would allow real estate developers to propose apartments, condos and townhomes in parts of St. Petersburg that could flood during storms is not consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan, the local planning agency has determined.

The measure was designed in part to respond to the demand for more housing but it puts people in harm’s way, opponents argued during a public hearing Tuesday before the St. Petersburg Community Planning & Preservation Commission.

The commission voted not to recommend the City Council adopt the Coastal High Hazard plan. The council, which voted in October to advance the plan for further review, will still take up the plan at a yet-to-be-determined date, but the recommendation is likely to carry some weight.

The plan has been in the works since 2016, when new maps from the Florida Division of Emergency Management showed 41 percent of the city’s geographic area — or 25 square miles — are now below the elevation of a category 1 storm surge line.

Current regulations bar increased density in those areas, keeping real estate developers from increasing the number of dwelling units per acre. The proposed Coastal High Hazard plan would allow developers to propose multi-family projects, provided they meet a lengthy list of standards. Each individual project also would be subject to review.

“This is not automatic. This is not a given when you change the rules. You have to come here to get each project approved and every project has its own intricacies,” said Carlos Yepes, the president of Belleair Development Group, who advocated for the plan. “I understand the resident’s concerns but it’s not just opening Pandora’s box and doing what you want to do. It’s not going to be that way.”

Among those opposing the plan was Karl Nurse, a former city councilman and former planning commission member. He called it “a terrible idea.”

“This is the most important decision you will make while you are on the commission,” Nurse said. “Housing typically lasts about 80 years or so. It’s not just what is the category 1 flood area today. It’s 20 years, 40 years, 60 years, 80 years from now. We all know that storms are getting worse … So I think it’s important to remember the risk is going to get worse, significantly worse. You can add all kinds of mitigating circumstances but it’s really very straightforward — where should we build.”

Nurse said it’s clear the city needs to allow increased densities to meet the housing demand, but he said the city should do so in areas well above the flood zone.

“This is not rocket science. This is supposed to be planning and I would ask you to plan for the future. If you are going to plan for the future, take a deep breath and say this is the stupidest idea that’s come before the commission in decades,” Nurse said.

He also raised questions about the city staff’s advocacy for the proposal.

“I know who they are carrying water for, and frankly they are under orders to do this. There are a number of other developers who are waiting for the go-ahead on this,” Nurse said.

That comment that drew a sharp rebuke from Derek Kilborn, the city’s manager for urban planning and historic preservation.

“We are professional planners. We are held to an ethical standards and we approach every application, every subject or initiative with a planner’s perspective and try to provide our professional input. We do not take direction from top down in violation of any ethical standards,” Kilborn said.

Kilborn said there are other initiatives designed to increase density outside of the Coastal High Hazard area, including on Central Avenue and in the proposed Union Central district, a 2.5 mile stretch along 34th Street, as well as measures that allow for more accessory dwelling units.

“That being said, we have significant activity centers and substantial planning initiatives that already are in place and we can’t turn our back on those either,” he said. Examples of those areas that lie within the Coastal High Hazard area are Carillon Town Center and the Skyway Marina District. “How do we continue to reinvest in those areas in ways that further enhance the work that’s already gone in, while at the same time we’re pursuing these other initiatives to move people toward the center.”

For commission member Sharon Winters, the public testimony was compelling and her gut reaction was “this is an incredibly bad idea.”

“This started as a conversation around economic development. Some of us believe there’s a big issue around public safety here and there’s this environmental reality that we’re all quite aware of. To me, public safety issues and the environmental reality win the day,” Winters said.

Commission members voted five to two against recommending the plan. Some commissioners suggested the discussion should be part of StPete2050, an ongoing visioning process, but a motion to recommend the administration consider referring the Coastal High Hazard planning to StPete2050 failed, by a four to three vote.

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