CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners handed themselves a trump card over cities' regulations Tuesday night, despite divisions in their own ranks.
The commission voted 4-3 for an ordinance to exempt the county from city development laws and permit fees, though St. Petersburg and Largo officials warned that Pinellas was overreaching.
The vote gives the county power to use its own rules and permit fees when it does construction projects, if city rules conflict with county standards. The ordinance draws on authority granted in the county charter.
"We're not bullies. We're not taking something that is not due for ours," Commissioner Norm Roche said.
But the broad measure worried Commissioners Ken Welch, Karen Seel and John Morroni, who voted no. Welch suggested it could unsettle relationships with city officials on bigger issues, as Pinellas wrestles with St. Petersburg and other cities over changes to control spending on emergency medical services.
While the county has used similar authority on individual projects, Pinellas had never imposed a measure as far reaching as this one.
"I don't think this is the time to do this," Welch said.
This summer, Pinellas officials decided they wanted to save money on permit fees for an $81 million public safety complex in Largo. The city's fees would cost Pinellas more than $200,000 above the county's own fees. Unable to negotiate lower fees, County Administrator Bob LaSala decided to pull rank.
The county charter gives Pinellas authority over its parks and countywide programs such as emergency services, courts, public safety and animal services, among others.
"We would never do something that would violate the wishes of a community," said Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala, who voted for the ordinance with Roche and Commissioners Neil Brickfield and Nancy Bostock.
But municipal officials warn it will hurt their control over the fabric of their communities. St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner and Largo officials urged the county to work with cities case by case instead of passing the measure.
St. Petersburg's chief assistant city attorney, Mark Winn, also argued that the ordinance goes beyond the powers the charter gives the county. The charter gives the county control over services, but never intended to exempt the county from local development regulations cities worked hard to create, he said.
"I don't think that's a power the voters intended to give the county when the charter was adopted in 1980," he said.
The county delayed a vote on the measure last month to try to ease cities' concerns after complaints, particularly from Mayor Bill Foster of St. Petersburg.
Foster, who did not attend Tuesday's meeting, had warned that the county could use the powers and allow a flashing billboard in downtown St. Petersburg and render panhandling restrictions moot on the Pinellas Trail — charges that county officials rebutted as hyperbole.
In a letter Tuesday, Foster avoided the rhetoric, but he still objected to the measure, saying he "cannot accept having to surrender" hundreds of acres of county-owned land from the city's regulations.
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.