CLEARWATER — A half-dozen activists from Clearwater Beach, Sand Key and Island Estates are launching an effort to explore whether the three island communities can secede from Clearwater and start their own city.
Clearwater officials say this talk of secession is unrealistic and unnecessary.
But the activists are dissatisfied with the service they're getting from Clearwater. They contend that there are "philosophical differences" between the city government and the island neighborhoods, as evidenced by problems such as a lack of beach parking. They have hired influential attorney Ed Armstrong to represent them.
These three island communities pay nearly 40 percent of the property taxes in Clearwater, so it would be a major blow for the city if they left. However, Clearwater officials say it would be difficult or impossible for them to do so under Florida law.
"Unless the City Council authorizes it, they really can't do it," said City Attorney Pam Akin.
Akin and City Council members said that Clearwater taxpayers — not just Clearwater Beach taxpayers — own a lot of public buildings and infrastructure along the beaches. And theoretically, a separate new city of Clearwater Beach would have to assume its share of Clearwater's debts. "It would be an enormously complicated process to untangle all of this," Akin said.
The activists who are exploring de-annexing from Clearwater are JoEllen Farnham, Cynthia Remley and Dick Jackson of Sand Key; David Muzio and Arnie Shaw of Island Estates; and Jerry Murphy of North Clearwater Beach. They call themselves the Islands Independence Initiative.
Although they're active in the three civic associations that represent their communities, they say they're not representing those associations. They'll present their case tonight at a meeting of the Island Estates Civic Association, but they say individual donations are funding this effort.
At this early stage, they have no answers about how the de-annexation process would work, or how secession would affect Clearwater and its beach neighborhoods. Farnham said they plan to explore the legal and practical ramifications and report back in 90 days.
Clearwater officials say they're disappointed to hear about the de-annexation effort. They say they're doing their best to serve the barrier islands as well as the rest of the city.
"I think it's a sign of our times, where nobody is happy about anything and their solution is usually pretty draconian," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. "I've also talked to a bunch of people who live in these areas who don't have the same feelings."
Farnham said the group decided to explore de-annexation after an accumulation of disappointments with the city, such as the lack of a beach parking garage while the city spends millions to construct boat slips downtown; a refusal to use Penny for Pinellas money to move Island Estates utilities underground; a period of time when the city didn't enforce rules forbidding short-term rentals on North Clearwater Beach; the approval of the Cabana Club project on Sand Key; and city actions that allowed a developer to seek a rezoning for the Shoppes at Sand Key.
However, city officials respond that it's not that simple. Three of five City Council members live on Clearwater Beach or Sand Key, and they say the barrier islands have enjoyed plenty of benefits from being part of Clearwater.
They mention Clearwater Beach's library, recreation center, fire station and marina; BeachWalk; an Island Estates playground; a Sand Key Bridge with no toll; and an expanded Sailing Center on Sand Key.
"I think there's an awful lot of advantages to Clearwater Beach being part of a larger community," said City Council member John Doran. "The larger community is there to back them up in the event that we someday have a major weather event. Standing out there all by yourself without any assistance makes it a little tougher."
It's not an easy task to form a new city under the best of circumstances. For instance, an effort to create a city of Palm Harbor died earlier this month in the Florida Legislature. Palm Harbor residents would have voted on the question in a referendum.
Although individual property owners routinely seek de-annexation from cities, officials say there appears to be no recent precedent for an entire neighborhood seceding from a city.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.