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To fight crime, St. Pete Beach considers buying blighted properties

ST. PETE BEACH — The city is seriously considering buying several blighted properties in a crime-ridden area along West Corey Avenue to convert them to a park or other public use.

How much that might cost — and where the city might find the needed money — is yet unknown.

But what is certain is that the City Commission is promising to do more to control crime and issue building code violations.

Years of complaints about deteriorating buildings, drug trafficking and prostitution, and residents' fear of walking in the neighborhood came to a head during a special commission workshop this month.

"These people have suffered enough," Mayor Mike Finnerty said after listening to more complaints from residents. "Why don't we just buy that property and turn it into some kind of park?"

After some discussion, a majority of the City Commission agreed the idea was at least worth exploring.

"It is really worth pursuing," Commissioner Al Halpern said. "The properties are in or near foreclosure."

But Halpern also cautioned that residents in other areas of the city "would not be happy" if buying the properties forced an increase in their property tax rates.

City Manger Mike Bonfield also cautioned it may be difficult to find grant money to cover part or all of the cost as the city did with its purchase last year of waterfront property adjacent to Egan Park.

"This is very out of the box thinking," Vice Mayor Jim Parent said. "There has got to be a million different public uses for that property."

The aging properties in question are owned by Suzanne Ferry and are located on both the north and south sides of Corey Avenue between Gulf Boulevard and Sunset Way.

Some are vacant, and others are rented as sober living housing for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.

The properties have a controversial past and the city and building code issues continue today, according to city officials.

A decade ago, the city fined Ferry nearly $20,000 for a variety of code violations and at one point considered condemning and seizing the properties by eminent domain.

State law prohibits the city from taking the properties by eminent domain and then selling or leasing them to private developers.

The commission directed Bonfield to research what would be involved in buying the property directly or instituting an eminent domain taking.

Also under consideration is the installation of surveillance cameras along West Corey as a deterrent to crime. Such cameras can cost between $10,000 and $30,000 each.

Police Chief David Romine reported that although drug and other crimes do occur along West Corey, statistics don't show that the area has a higher crime rate than other areas of the city.

"Since 2007 crime has gone down, the number of calls has gone down and the area is actually better," Romine said.

He described the use of undercover agents and informants in staging drug stings and acknowledged that area residents have the "perception" that West Corey continues to be a high crime area.

That was borne out as residents asked the commission to take action.

"I see people under the influence and it makes me think that is just the tip of the iceberg," said one resident.

"Most of the residents feel something very strong needs to be done," Deborah Schechner said.

Karl Holley, the city's community development director, agreed residents have "legitimate" concerns and the city needs to find new solutions.

In addition to Finnerty's idea to buy the property, the city is also considering creating a Nuisance Abatement Board with powers to force an owner to repair or otherwise address crime-related problems on his or her property.

Bonfield said he will report back to the commission at a future meeting.

To fight crime, St. Pete Beach considers buying blighted properties 02/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 4:45pm]
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