OLDSMAR — Sixteen months before East Lake voters overwhelmingly defeated a referendum that would have annexed portions of the area into Oldsmar, Tampa Bay Downs began negotiations to take approximately 90 acres out of East Lake and put the land in Oldsmar.
And the talks have continued since 92 percent of voters shot down the measure in March 2009.
Those revelations came to light when, during last week's Oldsmar council meeting, the city manager and the mayor discussed a new bill that would prohibit annexation of East Lake if state legislators pass it.
"We've been keeping it quiet," Mayor Jim Ronecker said Monday. "It's not something we're publicly talking about right now until they sign on the dotted line. There's really not much to talk about until they come into the city. We're in the final stages of that."
The attorney for Tampa Bay Downs said the motive isn't financial; the racetrack will pay more money if it moves into Oldsmar. Tampa Bay Downs wants to join Oldsmar because "it's logical," lawyer Gordon Schiff said. "It's surrounded on all sides by the city of Oldsmar. Oldsmar services are in the vicinity."
Some of the land, about 22 acres, is already part of Oldsmar.
"We're still doing our due diligence," Schiff said. "We have not formalized anything at this point. But it has been envisioned for some time."
That was news to the annexation bill's sponsor, state Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs. He didn't know Tampa Bay Downs and Oldsmar were in the final stages of anything until Ronecker told him so during the mayor's trip to Tallahassee last week.
Nehr agreed to amend the bill and pull Tampa Bay Downs from the list of prohibited areas if racetrack officials produced a letter saying they wanted to be in Oldsmar.
"This bill will get passed so we need to facilitate the wheels of motion, so to speak, and get the letter," Ronecker told council members. "Tampa Bay Downs is the plum that we want."
As of Tuesday, Nehr said he had not received the proof that he requested.
"I have no problem with voluntary annexation, but I want to make sure that the owners of the property do want to annex into Oldsmar. I wouldn't want to stop that in the least," he said.
Tom McKone, the East Lake Fire District chairman, said 90 acres are hardly small.
"I wish this had been discussed further," said McKone, who hopes to unseat Nehr this November. "It's caught the East Lake Tarpon Special Fire Control District by surprise."
Tampa Bay Downs currently pays three different taxing authorities and the district is one of them. If it joins Oldsmar, it will be taxed once.
Nearly a year ago, voters in the district were asked if the East Lake Woodlands subdivision, the Shoppes of Boot Ranch, the East Lake Woodlands Shopping Center and Lockheed Martin should be annexed into Oldsmar. Of the 3,589 people who cast a ballot, 3,292 people opposed the idea.
Since then, residents have worked with Nehr and state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, to craft a bill that would prevent any city from annexing any part of the district unless it plans to take it all — a move that would require voter approval.
Last year, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a similar bill that protects Tierra Verde from piecemeal annexation. At the time, Crist said he would consider signing similar bills to protect other unincorporated Pinellas communities.
The Pinellas legislative delegation has endorsed the East Lake bill sans Nehr's amendment.
Nehr said the change would not alter the intent of the bill.
"The main purpose of the bill is to prevent local municipalities from annexing portions of residential areas to increase someone's tax base," he said.
At least one other backer of the bill said he had no problem with the tweak.
"The intent was to protect the vast majority of the area from involuntary annexation; that's a different story than voluntary annexation," said Don Ewing, president of the Council of North County Neighborhoods. "If they choose to do that, that would be fine. I would presume it's okay if it's commercial property and that's fine with residents or business owners of that property."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4167.