A state appeals court on Friday struck down a referendum on renovating the Miami Beach Convention Center, ruling the city must present voters with more detailed terms of the $1 billion proposal before seeking approval.
The decision essentially canceled one of the most closely watched fights on South Florida’s election calendar this fall, with a team headed by New York developer Tishman hoping to win approval for a tax-subsidized upgrade of the center. The deal comes with a 99-year lease on city land for a private hotel, parking and retail complex.
“I’m so ecstatic for the voters of Miami Beach,’’ said Jonah Wolfson, the city commissioner who led the fight against the development plan. His campaign group, Let Miami Beach Decide, was a party to the suit that led to Friday’s ruling by the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami. The contested ballot question, Wolfson said, “was pulling the wool over the voters’ eyes.”
Jose Smith, Miami Beach’s attorney, said language for the Nov. 5 ballot is being submitted to Miami-Dade County without the convention-center item. He said negotiations on the lease could be concluded by spring, raising the possibility of a costly special election or sending the issue back to voters on Election Day in 2014.
Critics of the plan hailed the ruling as a severe blow to Tishman, given the challenges of extending the process past Election Day. But Jerry Libbin, an outgoing commissioner who supports the plan for the center, cast the decision as a temporary hurdle that can be overcome. “I just think it’s a bump in the road,’’ he said. “The lease will get negotiated. There will be a special election. And I’m confident the public will support it.”
At issue in the court fight was how specific of a deal Miami Beach must negotiate with Tishman before seeking the voter approval required by the city charter for an extended lease of public land. While Miami Beach negotiated a letter of intent with Tishman and the other firms that are part of the development team known as South Beach ACE, the court noted the terms weren’t binding and that voters couldn’t be sure how much rent the firm would be paying Miami Beach, among other issues.
“To approve a lease under the Charter Provision, the voters must be given notice of the material terms of the lease they are being asked to approve,’’ the court wrote in its decision.
Friday’s decision brought yet another setback to a decadelong push to upgrade the convention center, which tourism leaders say is crucial to keep large groups filling hotel rooms.
Now Miami Beach must wait to negotiate detailed terms of a deal before having another referendum on the issue, a delay that means more cost and risk for Tishman on the heels of an expensive fight with a rival developer over the selection process.
A Tishman spokesman declined to comment on Friday as the development team considers its options and how expensive the next phase of the development deal may become.
Miami Beach planned to raise hotel taxes citywide to generate enough revenue to pay a large portion of the roughly $30 million needed each year to cover debt costs on the $1 billion project, according to a proposed financial plan submitted by Tishman. The project, as outlined in the terms negotiated by Miami Beach, would require about $600 million in public funds for construction costs; it would be paid for with a mix of hotel and property taxes from the city and Miami-Dade County.