The city of St. Pete Beach, Fla., has filed suit against five residents who say they are opposed to a redevelopment plan officials claim will increase population and tax bases.

In what appears to be another case of eminent domain, with the city claiming an unchallengeable right to redevelop the quiet beachfront community, officials say they retained legal services after the rebellious residents collected signatures on a petition demanding the issue be put to a vote, WTSP-TV in Tampa-St. Petersburg reported yesterday.

According to the city’s charter, citizens can call for a vote on “any adopted ordinance,” but city officials decided to sue because they say the state won’t allow citizens the right to vote on a redevelopment plan like the one under consideration.

What’s more, they have denied they are using taxpayer funds to sue taxpayers.

“It’s not about suing citizens,” Mike Bonfield, St. Pete Beach city manager, told WTSP. But, he admitted, “that’s the only legal mechanism we have in the legal system.

But Linda Chaney, one of the five residents behind the petition drive, said city officials “are using the unlimited funds of the taxpayers dollars to stop the taxpayers from voting and expressing their will on their own city.”

Bonfield repeated, however, “it is not a matter of suing people, it’s making sure what is put in front of the residents is valid.”

Chaney remained undeterred.

“All we are asking as citizens is the right to vote on changes for our city so it is for the betterment of our entire community not a few select developers and land owners,” she told the TV station.

The St. Pete Beach case is one of several eminent domain cases after a key U.S. Supreme Court decision last June which gave governments more power to seize private properties for development purposes.

In the Kelo v. City of New London decision, the high court ruled 5-4 officials of the Connecticut enclave were allowed to take control of several properties in order to clear the way for a hotel and several high-priced condominiums expected to generate more tax revenue for the city.

Until that decision, the parameters of eminent domain in the U.S. generally were defined by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids the taking of “private property … for public use, without just compensation.” But justices ruled that the Constitution does not specifically prohibit invocation of eminent domain powers to further economic development goals.

Because of the ruling, however, some states and the U.S. House of Representatives are acting to curb what supporters say are eminent domain abuses fostered by the high court decision.

The U.S. House has passed the “Private Property Rights Restoration Act,” while lawmakers in other states such as Missouri and Indiana are considering similar legislation.


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