CLEARWATER — Should Sand Key get a divorce from Clearwater?
That's the question hanging over the condo-covered barrier island just south of Clearwater Beach, where a group is exploring whether Clearwater's island communities should secede from the city.
Four former presidents of the Sand Key Civic Association are coming forward to say secession is a bad idea — shortsighted, divisive, expensive and nearly impossible.
But the association's current leaders want to keep their options open. Some of them no longer trust the city government to look out for Sand Key's interests. That became clear Wednesday night when they met at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center.
The subject being debated was the Islands Independence Initiative, a group that's looking into whether Sand Key, Clearwater Beach and Island Estates could or should de-annex from Clearwater. The group recently mailed out fundraising fliers asking:
Why do our three islands, with 10 percent of Clearwater's population, pay 40 percent of city property taxes?
At Wednesday's meeting, former presidents of the Sand Key association stood up, one by one, to oppose secession.
Joe Calio said the association looked into the possibility 20 years ago before dropping it. He listed major projects the city has built on the island, such as a fire station, Bay Park on Sand Key, and pedestrian safety islands in Gulf Boulevard crosswalks.
"From time to time, the secession issue surfaces from one group or another," Calio said. "However, the majority of the residents oppose this action."
Nick Fritsch read a longer list of city projects, millions of dollars worth, including the Sailing Center and the Sand Key Bridge.
Mike Dooley said secession would require a citywide referendum, and the islands have only 10 percent of the city's voters.
Herb McLachlan said the topic is polarizing and creates ill will, so Sand Key residents should vote on it before their Civic Association spends any money on it. He added that the three islands' property taxes are only 14 percent of the city's income.
'What's the fear?'
After all that, it was the Islands Independence Initiative's turn.
JoEllen Farnham, its spokeswoman, said the nonprofit group has hired an attorney and a forensic accountant to do a methodical study of the legal and economic ramifications of separating from Clearwater. She said the group hasn't reached any conclusions.
"We don't know if it would be in our best interest to self-govern, but we are asking the question. We would like to know the answer," she said. "What's the fear in asking the question?"
Farnham said Sand Key residents started talking about secession last year when 300 at a time were taking charter buses to City Hall to oppose new hotels at zoning hearings. Many are disappointed that hotels may replace the Cabana Club restaurant and the Shoppes at Sand Key.
The board of the Sand Key Civic Association didn't take a position on secession Wednesday night, despite the efforts of the four former presidents.
Jerry Koenig, the current president, said the possibility of more hotels on Sand Key is a threat to residents' quality of life, bringing "parking problems, tourist proliferation and visibility encroachment." He wants to hear the Independence Initiative's findings.
At the same meeting, Mayor Frank Hibbard debated the pros and cons of secession with a couple of civic association leaders who support the idea — Bob Tarsin of Sand Key and Arnie Shal of Island Estates.
Shal said Clearwater's building codes are too flexible, clearing the way for more hotels where neighbors won't want them. He said the city only seems interested in tourism revenue.
Hibbard responded, "There's no vast conspiracy for the city to build a lot of buildings to generate tax revenue." Compared with the entire city budget, the mayor said the taxes generated by a hotel are "like pebbles in a lake."
The meeting was cordial, except for a couple of heated exchanges between Sand Key board members and former presidents.
People kept saying that none of this is personal. But Hibbard noted: "You are talking about a divorce. You have to expect that emotions are going to get high."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.