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Tierra Verde residents want St. Petersburg to stay away

TIERRA VERDE — Marilyn and Mark Johnson's Do It Best Hardware store is abuzz on a recent Friday morning as residents stock up on beach towels, flashlights, postcards and sunscreen on their way to the bait store or beach.

"Need some help with that?" Marilyn Johnson, a retired librarian, asks a customer with a cart full of paint supplies. "Say hello to your cousin," she tells another regular. "We haven't seen him in a while."

"Everybody comes in and just chitchats," Mrs. Johnson explains to a visitor. "We know them, they know us."

But life in this waterfront Mayberry is about to change, and not for the better, residents fear.

St. Petersburg's two-year effort to annex the commercial district at Tierra Verde's entrance will likely end Friday when the City Council is expected to approve the proposal. The 28-acre land acquisition, which includes the hardware store, would add at least $132,000 to St. Petersburg's property tax rolls and extend the city's boundaries across the Pinellas Bayway, making the entire island open to future annexation claims.

City council members got an earful Monday night from testy residents opposing the annexation. More than 100 showed up at a public forum, crowding into the council chambers and filling three overflow rooms.

Most cited fears of increased traffic problems, high-rise buildings and losing the small-island feel of Tierra Verde if annexed.

"My body just relaxes coming over the bridge," said Nancy Cleveland, a longtime Tierra Verde resident. "I don't want to see high rises."

Residents weren't the only ones speaking out against the move.

Both Brian Smith, executive director of the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization and Gordon Beardslee, the county's planning division administrator, asked the city to reject the annexation.

Among the few advocating for the annexation was Jessica Eilerman, director of advocacy and leadership for the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

Business owners seeking the annexation "feel it's important for them to move forward and get the support of St. Petersburg because they're not getting it where they are," Eilerman said. "As property owners they have that right."

Tierra Verde, with it's tree-lined cul-de-sacs and well-kept homes, is a deed-restricted, waterfront community of about 5,000 retirees, professionals, fishermen and diehard boaters.

It's a hidden oasis, conveniently bordered by urban life, but isolated enough from the mainland to ensure residents a quiet existence.

The most frequent crimes are boating or fishing related. Residents unabashedly leave their cars and houses unlocked. They greet their mail carriers by name and leave out water bottles for the garbage men in the summer.

"You can walk the streets at night and not worry about it," real estate agent Suzi Arkebauer said last week as she walked her chihuahua, Buddy, and waved to a neighbor driving by. "Everyone looks out for each other."

Developers dredged and filled the small islands bordering St. Petersburg to create Tierra Verde in the 1950s. Travel brochures boasted of "the most beautiful island setting this side of Heaven."

Strict rules protect the island's character. Small houses are banned. The tallest building is four stories.

But the annexation could change all that.

St. Petersburg wants 18 acres of commercial property, including the post office, hardware store, dry cleaner and beauty salon, plus 10 acres of submerged land.

Commercial property owners approached St. Petersburg about annexing the area because the city is more lenient to development than Pinellas County.

Plans call for a three-building, eight-story hotel and condominium complex. Wet Ultra Water Lounge would replace an existing shopping center.

"It won't be good for the island way of life," said Kris Brady, an information technology director who moved from Snell Isle to Tierra Verde in 2001. "It will bring tourists and traffic that we don't necessarily need or want."

Residents here are famously averse to traffic and noise.

On weekends, as visitors drive through on the way to Fort De Soto, many residents are in their homes, on their boats or in their pools — anything to get away from the traffic and noise.

But they won't be able to hide from new development at the gateway to their community.

Marilyn and Mark Johnson, the hardware store owners, oppose the annexation, but their landlord doesn't. The Johnsons don't know what will happen.

"Change is not always good, not when it's in your back yard and it affects your home," said Mrs. Johnson.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Tierra Verde residents want St. Petersburg to stay away 11/17/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 6:23pm]

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