OLDSMAR — State legislators on Wednesday amended a bill that would have made it difficult for Tampa Bay Downs — or any other property owner — to pull out of the East Lake Special Fire Control District and annex into other municipalities.
The bill, as it was first written, would have required cities to annex all of the district or none of it — and inadvertently prevented voluntary annexations when the original intent was to protect communities from involuntary ones.
The updated bill still must go through additional channels before it becomes law, but the tweak by the Senate community affairs committee all but clears the way for Oldsmar to add 100 acres of racetrack-owned land to its inventory.
"It allows Tampa Bay Downs to do what they want to do," said Greg Giordano, chief legislative assistant to Sen. Mike Fasano, the New Port Richey Republican who is sponsoring the bill.
Exactly what track officials plan to do with the property is not clear from city records.
Tampa Bay Downs sits on Race Track Road in Hillsborough County. Directly across the street, in unincorporated Pinellas County, is the 100 acres. Signs, fences, power line towers, railroad tracks and stormwater ponds dot the property, which is valued at nearly $2 million.
In an application for annexation filed with the city late Tuesday, Tampa Bay Downs attorney Gordon Schiff typed 'Mixed uses' when asked to describe the proposed use of the property.
Asked what that means, Schiff said, "The petition speaks for itself and we hope it will move forward in a positive manner."
Once Oldsmar approves the annexation, which the council has endorsed, Tampa Bay Downs will get a zoning designation — commercial recreation — that allows it to build anything from an office to a hotel on the land.
It has been a dramatic two weeks for Oldsmar and Tampa Bay Downs. At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Oldsmar Mayor Jim Ronecker announced that annexation efforts had hit a slight snag.
In February, Rep. Peter Nehr agreed to exempt Tampa Bay Downs from the original bill if track officials produced a letter saying they wanted the land to be in Oldsmar. Nehr, a Republican from Tarpon Springs, sponsored the House's version of the Senate bill.
Tampa Bay Downs and Progress Energy, which runs a transmission line through the property, did just as he requested, then Nehr added another stipulation this month. He wanted a majority of the Pinellas Legislative Delegation to sign off on the change. As of Tuesday's council meeting, Ronecker had only reached six of the delegation's 12 members.
"If they don't have the approval of the majority of the delegation," Ronecker said then, "they're going to read the bill as written. That's our issue."
Not only was Ronecker able to reach the rest of the officials, but Fasano's office assured him that the Senate bill would make provisions for voluntary annexations.
Ronecker was elated with the latest development. "We're now covered," he said.
Tampa Bay Downs' petition will go before the city's technical review committee next week.
"They requested it be on the fast track," Ronecker said. "They're ready to get it done, and that's significant for us."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4167.