St. Pete Beach mayoral candidates debate development, planning

Mayor Al Johnson, left, is facing a challenge from real estate broker Adrian Petrila.

ST. PETE BEACH — With questions that focused on handling future development, possible hotel expansion and potential changes to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, incumbent Mayor Al Johnson faced real estate broker Adrian Petrila in an hour-long League of Women Voters candidate forum, tackling several issues before voters cast ballots in the city’s March 14 municipal election.

In addressing the question of whether any candidate favored a property tax reduction, Petrila praised Commissioner Mark Grill’s failed attempt to lower the city’s millage rate during the most recent budget hearings. 

“But like good politicians, they decided how do we spend that $1.3 million surplus, rather than deciding how to give back some of the money paid in by taxpayers,” Petrila said. “My opponent argued we should keep the millage rate.”

Petrila said he was accused of spreading misinformation when he said hoteliers received tax reductions, while their taxable values went up.

Johnson retorted, “What (Petrila) neglected to tell you is we don’t have control over the millage rate. We prepare a budget based upon millage. We haven’t changed the millage rate in almost 10 years. We haven’t given tax breaks to anybody.”

Johnson added, “I showed my opponent the breakout between the millage rates for residents and hotels from the property appraiser. Between 2017 and 2022 (taxable values for) residents have gone up 49 percent, while hotels have gone up 64 percent.”

During the forum candidates were asked if the city has the water, sewer and road capacity if the city’s tourist district density of 75 temporary lodging units per acre is applied to the entire city.

Johnson said the only place on the island where a temporary lodging facility can be built with that density is the Large Hotel Resort District. He explained it spans nine-tenths of a mile on the west side of Gulf Boulevard from the Dolphin Beach Resort to the Postcard Inn. 

“When you look at the criteria to get that kind of density there’s only three or four properties that could ever do that right now, the Tradewinds being one of them,” he noted. “That’s something that’s very specific and requires setbacks, the buildings are limited to 12 stories, and they have to give us public beach access on the property. It’s very isolated, it’s not going to happen all over the island.”

Petrila asked, “Does anyone here think we can handle the additional 2,000 cars a day that they are currently proposing for the Tradewinds? We cannot handle the additional density. We cannot handle the additional traffic. We cannot handle the additional congestion. We cannot handle the additional overcrowding on our beaches.”

When asked what the candidates would propose to ensure smart development, Petrila cited three strategies: Stop approving anything that’s over the allowed current density, make sure developers conform to “absolutely every part” of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and open up the comp plan for review by residents.

Johnson took exception with his challenger’s proposal. “The way the comp plan is built is really designed around making sure we maintain our only industry, which is tourism, which supports all of our small businesses and that’s a benefit to us year-round.”

When questioned about what the city can do to further harden its infrastructure against sea level rise and flooding, Johnson noted the city is looking at a plan that goes out to 2050. “The estimates are all over the place for sea level rise,” he said. The city has done a lot of work already in low-lying areas such as Boca Ciega Isle and the Maritana neighborhood near the Don CeSar.

“We are doing things now to try and eat that elephant one bite at a time, because it’s going to be huge numbers, a lot of money, but we have 30 to 40 years to get there,” the mayor said.

He added that the city used to look solely at flooding, but now considers water threat analysis “where we are looking at not only water that comes out of the sky, but water that comes up through your storm drains and comes into the streets … We are working on that right now and it’s a long-term project.”

Petrila said one of the worst things the city can do is increase density. “You have neighborhoods like in the Don CeSar Place that have been dealing with the same issue now for 50 years. What do we do instead of addressing that issue?” he asked. “We spend $13 million on sewer project on Gulf Boulevard, not for us.”

Petrila asserted the project was done for the benefit of hotels and resorts that can start redeveloping. “It wasn’t done for us, it was done for them. We can start actually addressing the issues in our neighborhoods rather than taking care of everybody else.”

When asked what is the top environmental issue facing the city and how would they address it, Johnson said he feels the city is “in really good shape as far as the environment is concerned.” The city is containing runoff into the bay, and has a beach manager doing a better job with enforcement of beach regulations.

Petrila said he felt the biggest environmental issue is overcrowding. “When you look at why we have so much trash on the beach, it’s overcrowding. When you look at why we have turtles falling into the pool at one of the hotels, it’s overcrowding … and we are looking at how we can cram more people on our island. How can we put more people in an already congested situation?”

When asked how each will work with other commissioners to achieve consensus on important issues, Petrila said he will have “a guiding question, that is really simple — how is this good for our residents. Every decision by every commissioner should be can you justify whether your vote is good for our residents.”

Johnson said his opponent “appears to be delusional about what his power would be if he got the job. I am mayor-commissioner; that means I am the same as any other commissioner, except I am elected citywide. I have no additional authority over any of them. We are all looking at the same target with our various backgrounds. We all come up with the same answers, because we were all looking the same target; there are different ways to get there. We are here to serve the citizens…We set the priorities and the overall strategy and tactics are done by the city manager and staff.”