Much like wartime victors, officials from across Pinellas sat down Wednesday to carve up the unincorporated county into neat chunks that cities could easily annex.
There was more at stake than boundary lines. At least 19 issues are on the table, and some of them could have a far-ranging effect on the standard of living for many Pinellas residents.
Unlike the end of wars, the people who could be annexed were not ready to go quietly. Instead, residents from unincorporated areas sat on the edges ready to fight for their rights to live outside cities.
Among those were residents of Tierra Verde who have sworn to fend off an effort by St. Petersburg to annex two hotels and a marina on the end of their island. Also there were residents of the unincorporated Seminole and Lealman areas who have long struggled to block annexation attempts by Seminole and Pinellas Park.
How much of Tierra Verde could remain unincorporated is unclear. St. Petersburg voted Friday to annex a commercial area at the tip of the island.
But more than boundaries are on the table. The county handed out a list of issues that are high on the agenda. Some of those are controversial and could affect the delivery of services such as police protection and fire service across the county.
Perhaps the most controversial is a proposal to eliminate the requirement that annexed property be contiguous to the border of the annexing city. Opponents say that's a bad idea for several reasons.
First, it would allow cities to "cherry pick" tax-rich properties while leaving behind poorer areas. That would take tax money away from the county that could be used to improve those poorer areas. Also, having a piece of a city here and a piece there would be confusing for residents who would not know which policing agency, for example, had jurisdiction over their property.
Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association, scorned the idea: "That's asinine. First of all, it flies in the face of good government. We would have hodgepodge annexation. ... It just defies logic."
Cities argue that service delivery is confusing now because their boundaries have jagged edges and that annexation will limit that confusion, Neri said. Yet it's the annexations that create those jagged borders and "now they're turning around and saying give us the power to make it even worse. It's so illogical, you wonder where these people's heads are."
Mark Ely, head of Seminole's planning department, said, "In principle, it would benefit the city, (but) you have to balance that with the cost of service."
The idea behind noncontiguous annexation is that, if an area is eventually going to be in a city, then the municipality should have the right to annex the area as fast as possible. Sometimes, Ely said, property owners who are not butted up against a city want to be annexed before the adjacent property owners. Those folks should not have to wait. But Ely said cities have to be careful when annexing areas that are not contiguous. Getting too far away from the city limits increases the costs of service delivery, from police patrols to public works employees who would have to drive through an unincorporated area to get to the far reaches of the city.
"I wouldn't mind noncontiguous annexation, but I would use it sparingly," Ely said. "There's got to be some rationality."
Neri's caustic outcry wasn't the only angry reaction at Wednesday's meeting of the negotiating committee under the Interlocal Service Boundary Agreement Act.
"Unincorporated areas are fodder for land grabs" by cities greedy for taxes, said Art Hebert, a resident of the unincorporated Seminole area.
Dot Miller, also a resident of the unincorporated Seminole area, said she and other anti-annexation activists have talked with thousands of people throughout the years who do not want to be sucked into cities and who are tired of having to fight predators ready to gobble them up. The only way to stop the problems associated with annexation, she said, is to ban annexation.
Their comments received no response. The only responses to citizen comment came when Roger Wilson of unincorporated Seminole asked a question during the meeting and when a Tierra Verde resident demanded to know why St. Petersburg would pursue an annexation unwanted by islanders while sitting at a negotiation designed to work out annexation issues.
Wilson received no direct response to his question. Instead, Kenneth City town attorney Paul Marino objected to the question, saying, "for the general public to interject into this meeting ... is totally out of order."
Audience members were required to wait until the end of the meeting to comment and ask questions. But answers were not forthcoming. At the question from Tierra Verde, Gordon Beardslee, the county planner who was presiding, said the meeting was not the place for such questions.
Mid to late 1990s
Pinellas Park and Largo pursue aggressive annexation plans. Largo announces a plan in 1997 to annex unincorporated land eastward, past the Bayside Bridge and into High Point. Pinellas Park unveils a plan in 1998 amid great fanfare that would bring $6.7-million a year in taxes and fees to the city by 2007. Then-City Manager Jerry Mudd is quoted as saying, "We have been very aggressive in the past with annexations, (but) you ain't seen nothing yet." The two cities eventually clash, sparking lawsuits, complaints from property owners faced with annexations they don't want, complaints from landowners caught between the two cities, complaints from businesses and fears that the publicity was making companies reluctant to locate in Pinellas lest they get caught in the battles. In June 1999, Pinellas Park, Largo and St. Petersburg sign an agreement that sets up annexation boundaries within which each can annex. By October, the deal between Pinellas Park and Largo disintegrates and talk of lawsuits begins. Lealman residents start complaining about Pinellas Park's plans to annex to the south of the city. Seminole starts its aggressive annexation program.
After months of meetings, the county and all 24 cities agree to set up annexation zones as a way to stop the annexation wars. The zones establish an area within which each city can annex free from interference by other cities. Some areas of the county are left outside those zones. The voters approve the plan, but just before the deal takes effect, Seminole annexes the tax-rich area along the west side of Park Street that includes the Target shopping center and the property that now houses Kohl's and other stores. The annexation cuts into the tax base of the Lealman Fire District, whose firefighters are still listed as the first responders on calls to what has become the city of Seminole. Lealman residents begin organizing in opposition to annexation.
Seminole annexes more land by referendum as opposition in the unincorporated area around that city grows. Lealman residents talk about forming a city to defend themselves from annexation but find it would be fiscally hard to do so especially after Pinellas Park annexes a horse farm linking East and West Lealman (they are divided by Kenneth City). After strong lobbying efforts from community residents and firefighters, the County Commission votes to protect Lealman from further annexations by shrinking the planning areas of Kenneth City and Pinellas Park. Largo and Seminole sue. Kenneth City, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg join the fray.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Bruce Boyer rules that Pinellas County overstepped its authority in establishing limits on annexation.
An appeals court confirms Boyer's decision.
A subcommittee of the Pinellas Planning Council and the County Commission meet to discuss annexation and recommend that the commission bring cities and special districts together to try to work out a solution. In July, the county agrees and issues invitations to the 24 cities and to 10 special districts.
Two special districts, 15 cities and the county send attorneys and staff members to begin negotiating annexation and related issues.
The next scheduled meeting of the negotiating team. The date has not been set, but the meeting is expected to be in Largo. The meeting will be open to the public.
For information, see www.pinellas
county.org or call Brian Smith or Gordon Beardslee at 464-8200. Smith and Beardslee are the county representatives on the negotiating team.
Has reached deals with Pinellas and Lealman over annexation zone boundaries.
Has turned its sights on land in the High Point and
Has indulged in limited annexations but was one of the municipalities that filed suit when the county collapsed the town's annexation planning area.
Residents have long resisted annexation by Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg.
Has its sights on upscale Bardmoor.
Trying to annex East Lake Woodlands, Brookers Landing and El Prado subdivisions and twoshopping centers.
Residents fighting St. Petersburg's annexation of commercial property on tip of island.
AT A GLANCE
More than mere boundaries
Officials from Pinellas County, 15 municipalities and two special districts are trying to work out a solution to the county's long-standing annexation issues. In the past, the solutions have focused on boundaries, but this time around there are 19 major issues on the table, many of which could have far-reaching effects. Here are some of those issues.
• Establish boundaries within which cities can annex.
• Create rules for both voluntary annexations and annexations by referendum.
• Eliminate the requirement that cities be able to prove in advance that they can provide services such as fire, water and sewer to the properties they want to annex. The assumption is that cities would always be able to provide those services.
• Do away with the requirement that annexed land be contiguous to the annexing city's limits.
• Allow cities to annex all unincorporated property within its planning area without the county's approval or consent.
Source: Pinellas County