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St. Petersburg's bid to grab island is troubling sign

If you take the Bayway exit off Interstate 275 southbound in Pinellas County, head for the beaches, and then turn left toward Fort De Soto Park, you'll pass through the unincorporated island community of Tierra Verde.

There's a little village of marinas, restaurants and shops on your right just after you cross a drawbridge over the Intracoastal Waterway. I used to stop there at the Bait Bucket on my way to the park, back in the days when I pretended to be trying to catch snook or redfish.

But if the city of St. Petersburg has its way — and if the residents of Tierra Verde can't stop it — this northern end of the island will soon be known as, uh …

"St. Petersburg."

Yep. The city proposes to reach across the water and bring an odd appendix of land in Tierra Verde into its city limits. The proposed annexation consists of 18.25 acres of land and 10.07 acres of water, including the submerged strip needed to connect Tierra Verde to the mainland.

The circumstances behind this annexation are, shall we say, unusually interesting.

First, there are allegations of an effort to make sure that any pesky residents of the affected area — who might be entitled to vote in an annexation election — are no longer "residents." Presto, change-o! No election needed.

Based on voter complaints, the Pinellas supervisor of elections has asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether live-aboard marina residents were forced to change their voter-registration addresses elsewhere.

Next, the major property owners agreeing to the annexation, including Steve Sembler, a son of well-known developer Mel Sembler, apparently figure the city will like their development plans.

The residents of Tierra Verde, who get no vote at all, are overwhelmingly opposed to the annexation. So is Pinellas County, which is sending a letter to the city.

"Going across the Intracoastal Waterway and starting to annex another island, another community," county planning director Brian Smith told me, "doesn't seem to be what we think is the intent of the law."

But the city says its proposal satisfies the law. I was especially interested in the paragraph in city documents explaining how the city, which already provides some services to the area, plans to extend its police protection.

"The area will be served by the St. Petersburg Police Department after annexation, which has adequate resources to provide such services," the city document says.

(I am curious as to whether the men and women who drive the police cars agree.)

You can see the attraction of this deal to Mayor Rick Baker and the City Council. The city gets to increase its tax base and its territory — and it can approve development without worrying about any angry constituents.

And once it gets a beachhead in Tierra Verde, St. Petersburg can keep going.

The first public hearing on the annexation is 3:30 p.m. Thursday at St. Petersburg City Hall. There's a second hearing the next Thursday.

I just hope these tactics don't give St. Petersburg any ideas about its upcoming election on a baseball stadium.

Is it possible to tell 275,000 people that they don't live here either? If I were the opponents, I might start looking for "St. Petersburg city limits" signs on the edge of my yard — facing inward.

St. Petersburg's bid to grab island is troubling sign 05/03/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 9, 2008 11:33am]

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