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Neighbors unhappy about planned demolition of Gandy house

By Waveney Ann Moore
The historic Mullet Farm home at 2700 Driftwood Road S in St.Petersburg's Driftwood neighborhood may be torn down to build a new home on the property. It was the home of the Gandy family for many years. Other homeowners in the area are seeking historic status for the neighborhood and are mad about the possible demolition by the current owners. SCOTT KEELER | Times

ST. PETERSBURG — They proudly march to a different drummer, holding whacky July 4th parades, trekking through wooded lanes on New Year’s Eve to progressive dinners, and once upon a time, hanging bat houses from shady oaks to cut down on mosquitoes. None came. Bats, that is.

In Driftwood, a neighborhood of 47 houses on Big Bayou and cocooned in a tangle of towering trees and undergrowth, residents have cultivated an easy-going ambience. Until now.

As developers nip at the edge of their enclave and plans are announced to demolish their oldest and most historic home, Driftwood neighbors are caught up in unfamiliar discord.

One side is clamoring for local historic designation to protect the neighborhood. On the other are those like newcomers Timothy and Janna Ranney, who bought and plan to demolish the former home of the family who built the Gandy Bridge that bears their name.

The laid-back neighborhood has mulled historic designation before, but now appears motivated to follow through.

"It’s what’s happening in neighborhoods around the city," said Laurie Macdonald, who moved to Driftwood in 1989. "My primary motivation overall is that this is a very special place and I think it’s wonderful to protect and to preserve the character and the feel and the look," she said.

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Timothy Ranney, who paid $1.73 million for the waterfront Gandy property at 2700 Driftwood Road S, said he and his wife were drawn to Driftwood’s beauty.

"When I bought the house, the hope was to be able to save the house ... and ultimately found out that the house could not be saved, which was unfortunate," he said.

The Ranneys have hired lawyers and a public relations firm and organized two "informational" programs for Driftwood homeowners at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

"The Driftwood community has a unique charm and the people have always had a live-and-let-live mindset," Ranney said. "It’s fair to say that the people in the neighborhood have strong opinions, but in the spirit of live-and-let-live, a historic district is contrary to a live-and-let-live mindset."

But B.J. Sheffield, who has lived in Driftwood since 1984, wondered: "If you’re really buying a historic house and a historic property, why was it such a big deal that we were going to include it in a historic district?"

Ranney’s argument is that Driftwood’s low-lying topography would present "unique challenges" for building and protecting homes under historic designation.

"It’s a matter of the challenges of a historic district versus the challenges of a flood zone and the fact that the two don’t necessarily coexist with each other,’’ he said. "History is an important thing, but personal safety is more important."

Trish Moore, a developer who is renovating her Driftwood home, supports designation.

"There’s been a lot of fear mongering," she said. "Anybody who is living on the water is taking a risk."

Historic designation does not prevent property owners from upgrading their properties, said Derek Kilborn, a manager in the city’s urban planning and historic preservation division. Homes can be elevated to satisfy flood zone requirements, but residents have to get a certificate of appropriateness to do that and other exterior modifications involving new construction or additions.

Peter Pav, a 46-year Driftwood resident, is among those who oppose historic designation. His neighbors "mean well, but they are just idealistic," he said.

Elizabeth Schuh, who grew up in Driftwood and whose father and brother still live there, said her family is also against the idea.

"Our thoughts are that people have their own property rights that they are entitled to and we really don’t think that additional restrictions are necessary based on the fear of change," she said.

The Gandy Home, also known as the Mullet Farm, is seen as the centerpiece of Driftwood, which is steeped in such history as being the only area in Pinellas County to see armed conflict during the Civil War. The home was built in 1910 by shipbuilder Barney Williams, son of St. Petersburg’s co-founder, Gen. John Constantine Williams. George "Gidge" Gandy Jr., who worked with his father and brother to built the Gandy Bridge, bought the house in 1921 and lived there with his family. Later, it was also the home of his daughter, Helen O’Brien and her family.

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But the historic home was riddled with structural, asbestos, mold and other problems, and, said Ranney, engineers, architects and builders have said it can’t be saved.

"It wasn’t a conclusion we came to lightly," he said.

David Lesser of Windstar Homes in Tampa said he is designing a "a modest, one-story, Florida Cracker-inspired, single family home," to replace the Gandy house.

"The problem is, the superstructure of that home is in disrepair," Lesser said. "That house needs to come down as quickly as possible. It’s a life safety issue."

"We knew there were issues. We sold it as is," said Kim O’Brien, who inherited the house with her brother and sister.

They waited two years after their mother’s death in 2015 to put it on the market, O’Brien said, adding that she even approached the University of South Florida and the city of St. Petersburg about taking the historic house.

"The last thing we wanted was to have it destroyed," said O’Brien, who learned of the Ranneys’ decision a day after the closing. "We had been told that they were going to restore it."

But O’Brien, who lives nearby with her husband, Robert Morey, on property lush with native Florida plants, is most upset "by the cutting of the trees, the denuding of the landscape" at her family’s former home.

"Why anyone would buy in Driftwood and proceed to take the Driftwood out of it? They were espousing how much they loved Driftwood and the feel of Driftwood," she said.

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City regulations require the Ranneys’ demolition application be put on a 30-day hold. Though the Gandy house is not a designated local landmark, Kilborn said it’s recognized as being potentially eligible for listing in the St. Petersburg Register of Historic Places. If an application for local landmark designation is received during the 30-day period, the demolition request will be put on further hold until the City Council makes a decision about landmarking, or the application is withdrawn, Kilborn said.

There is a March 23 deadline to submit its application to save the house. As to the district designation, city regulations require an assenting vote of 50 percent plus one of its tax parcels before an application can be filed.

Macdonald said they will pursue historic designation, even if the Ranneys get permission to demolish the Mullet Farm.

"It’s certainly not about the Mullet Farm, but the Mullet Farm is a cautionary tale," O’Brien said. "Our priorities for many of us is to create a habitat, as well as a pleasing, peaceful environment for ourselves."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.