Miami Beach

Miami Beach convention center referendum canceled after court decision

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.

While it prevailed in winning government backing for its plan this summer, Tishman could face a less favorable political environment the second time around.

Three of the six commission seats are up for grabs in November, and the city also will elect a new mayor. Mayoral candidate Philip Levine sent out a campaign email Friday praising the decision, while his rival, Commissioner Michael Góngora, supported Tishman in the July 17 selection vote. J.C. Planas, an Aventura lawyer who represented Wolfson’s group, said he did not expect an appeal from the city and that Election Day may determine the ultimate outcome.

“We don’t know if Tishman can survive the new commission,’’ he said.

Even without a supportive commission, the plan could face a harder time at the ballot box next year. Voters will have the chance in November to increase from 50 percent to 60 percent the amount of votes needed to award an extended lease for the convention center and surrounding areas.

The ballot item, pushed by Wolfson’s group, was designed to scuttle the other ballot item on the convention center by raising the vote requirement.

The city asked a court to ratify its position that the vote requirement, if it passed, shouldn’t apply to the convention-center question, since the development process is already under way.

The court did not rule on that issue, since striking down the convention-center ballot language rendered the matter moot. If the 60 percent question passes, Miami Beach could sue again to have the original ACE proposal declared exempt from the new rule.

Góngora noted that 67 percent of Miami Beach voters in August 2012 endorsed raising hotel taxes an additional 1 percent to fund improvements to the center. “I believe a majority of the voters want the convention center to be upgraded,’’ he said.

Wolfson said he agreed, but that he wants a smaller price tag for a project that does not involve turning over public land for profit-making ventures to help pay for the effort.

“I am fully in favor of renovating the convention center,’’ he said. “We just should not be selling the quality of life of our residents by doing it.”