PALM HARBOR — Norm Atherton, a resident of unincorporated Palm Harbor for more than 50 years, says he's ready for a change.
Although it's been attempted before, he's leading a new campaign to make Palm Harbor a city.
Atherton believes the time is right to push for a local government just for Palm Harbor, which has more about 90,000 residents if you include unincorporated East Lake on the east side of Lake Tarpon.
"We think that if Palm Harbor was its own city, with its own government, things would run smoother,'' said Atherton, who has also served as a Palm Harbor fire commissioner since 1981.
With help from several longtime Palm Harbor residents, he has formed the Palm Harbor Coalition. Last week, the group sent out a news release announcing that the coalition was seeking volunteers as well as accepting applications for a board of directors.
Although Atherton is now focusing on the area that makes up the Palm Harbor Fire District, including downtown Palm Harbor, Ozona and Crystal Beach, he hopes to hear from East Lake residents too. East Lake has its own fire district.
"We are in the preliminary stages,'' Atherton said. "We want everyone to give us input to determine how to move forward.''
For years, some Palm Harbor residents have wished they had a city government rather than relying on the Pinellas County Commission. The main reason, Atherton said, is because Palm Harbor residents are in a municipal services taxing unit and pay Pinellas County to fund their municipal services.
"There are many who feel we don't get back what we pay in taxes,'' he said. "Up until now, I was not interested in incorporating, but recently I've felt we've needed local representation.''
About four years ago, another group, the Greater Palm Harbor Coalition, pushed for incorporation. However, due in large part to a group of Crystal Beach residents who wanted to remain independent, the coalition's work was tabled.
James Kleyman, one of the leaders of the former coalition, is serving as an unofficial adviser to the new group. He believes another reason past campaigns failed was that residents "were not educated and did not understand the differences of city and county government,'' he said. However, recent events have frustrated residents, Kleyman said.
Kleyman believes many in the community saw more of a need for localized government back in April when the Pinellas County commissioners decided to amend the Historic Palm Harbor Master Plan to allow property owners to use transfers of development rights to expand. "Palm Harbor was treated horribly with that. (Pinellas County) stepped all over the community,'' Kleyman said.
Ultimately, voters would decide whether or not Palm Harbor would incorporate, and in order for that to happen, the Palm Harbor Coalition will need to get the go-ahead from the Florida Legislature to proceed.
Until then, Atherton encourages those interested to contact the coalition to help with the process.
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.