ST. PETERSBURG — Trying to build last-minute support for their controversial Tierra Verde annexation plan, city officials offered a new bargaining chip late Thursday: If the annexation is not challenged, they will limit development on the island to eight stories.
The offer is the latest in the city's two-year effort to acquire a wealthy commercial enclave across the Pinellas Bayway Bridge, despite growing opposition from nearby residents, state lawmakers and Pinellas County officials.
"I think we have tried to listen to the concerns of the Tierra Verde folks," said Mayor Rick Baker. "They made it very clear to me that height and density was their main issue."
An eight-story limit isn't good enough, residents said, even though it is stricter than maximum of 15 stories that St. Petersburg allows for that type of waterfront district. Tierra Verde limits development to five stories.
Residents said they would still challenge annexation in court.
"I have a lot of respect for Mayor Baker, but I can tell you, speaking for the community, they are not going to make any kind of deal to be annexed," said Jack Parker, a director for the Tierra Verde Community Association. "We are absolutely going to challenge them. We are not going to agree to eight stories."
The City Council is expected to approve the 28-acre acquisition this morning, its third attempt to acquire the island's commercial center located at the foot of the Bayway Bridge.
New development in the commercial area could add up to $1-million annually to tax revenues, city officials predicted Thursday.
"It could potentially lighten the tax burden of existing city residents," said Rick Mussett, city development administrator who suggested two types of projects that could generate that kind of income: 394 upscale condominium units or 450 hotel rooms and 170 condo units.
That worries nearby Tierra Verde residents. They live outside the annexation area but feel higher development could overstress their already strained roadways and hurt chances that the unincorporated community could later become its own municipality.
Legislators, neighborhood groups and state and county officials have also criticized the proposal and implored the city to delay the annexation vote.
"We understand that the city is trying to find new revenue sources during these challenging times," wrote Barbara Heck, president of St. Petersburg's Council of Neighborhood Associations, in a letter to the City Council on Thursday. "However, this is not the right way to go about that."
County leaders said they are prepared to settle the matter in court.
"The city would leave us no choice," said Brian Smith, the county's planning director.
The annexation saga began in the summer of 2006, when a handful of commercial property owners in northern Tierra Verde began feeling out county and city leaders' thoughts on land use options. The city's more lenient development rules eventually swayed the developers to pursue annexation.
Public records show that city officials threw Jannus Landing and Detroit Hotel into the pot to sway one influential property owner in northern Tierra Verde to support the annexation.
Developer Tony Amico owns both the downtown St. Petersburg landmarks plus part of the proposed annexation area.
An early city pitch went like this: preserve and restore Jannus Landing, and the Detroit, the oldest hotel in the city, and earn greater development rights in northern Tierra Verde or elsewhere in St. Petersburg.
But Amico rejected the deal, saying he didn't want to limit his options with the prime downtown properties.
The creative maneuvering impressed developers, who seemed overjoyed with the construction possibilities painted by the city.
"I can't believe how much we can get out of this site," wrote Renee Ruggiero, a project planner for Northside Engineering Services and an early player in the annexation discussions, to the city staff in March 2007. "It is pretty incredible."
But the back and forth created confusion about what the city would and would not allow in the annexed land.
City officials hoped the eight-story limit would settle those issues.
" We are trying to keep everybody happy," said council Chairman Jamie Bennett.
Amico said the annexation is in his and other property owners' best interests. Tierra Verde residents, "need to put themselves in the position that I am in," he said. "You buy a piece of real estate, you do what you can to enhance that piece of real estate."