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Pinellas County looks at saving money by trumping cities' building rules

Pinellas County officials say they saw the idea as a way to save money on county construction projects: exempt the county from various cities' regulations.

But St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster feared the move could open the city to an array of unexpected problems.

For starters, a proposed county ordinance could pre-empt the city's restrictions on panhandling and public sleeping along the Pinellas Trail, Foster and chief assistant city attorney Mark Winn wrote in a letter to the county this month. Then people could do both near homes and businesses.

And, even though the City Council rejected digital billboards, Foster and Winn raised the specter of such a sign flashing atop a Pinellas County-owned office building downtown.

And what of county-owned Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, they asked?

"Quite frankly, there is serious concern as to the impacts and unintended consequences that this ordinance may create for all municipalities," the letter said.

St. Petersburg officials weren't the only ones bothered. Largo and Pinellas Park leaders, among others, recoiled at how the county wanted to trump city rules.

But county officials say the measure only details powers that Pinellas already has, such as pre-empting cities from regulating county solid waste sites. The county charter gives Pinellas authority over parks, emergency services, courts, public safety and animal services, among others.

This summer, the county figured it could save money on an $81 million public safety complex in Largo by using the county's own building regulations and permit fees, not Largo's more expensive fees. Unable to negotiate lower fees, County Administrator Bob LaSala came up with the broader ordinance in August.

The County Commission will decide whether to approve the proposal at public hearings Tuesday and Oct. 11.

Top county officials said Foster's fears don't hold up, although they changed the proposed ordinance Thursday to make it clearer. The measure is meant to regulate construction, not every regulation, managing assistant county attorney Jewel White said. The latest version applies only to development and only if county and city regulations differ.

Besides, nothing on the county's books conflicts with St. Petersburg's limits on panhandling and public sleeping on the Pinellas Trail, White said.

The county allows digital billboards to go up only near major highways, such as interstates and U.S. 19. The county office building at 501 First Ave. N doesn't appear to qualify (nor would they actually want a billboard there, White said).

Tropicana Field also isn't among properties affected by the measure, White said.

Foster said Friday he still wants to review the latest proposal. The eye-opening examples in his letter led to more debate, as he said he sought.

"I wouldn't call them exaggerations, but these were examples of the what-if's. I think it served its purpose to get their attention so that they more narrowly construe what they want to do," Foster said.

Still, he said the county took a "very liberal interpretation" of its power under the charter.

A county advisory board, the Local Planning Agency, voted 5-2 for the measure Sept. 8.

The board chairman, former St. Petersburg Mayor Randy Wedding, voted no because he said the county had pushed it too fast, and a one-size-fits-all approaches "fits no one."

But the county certainly has the powers in the charter, and Foster's examples of trouble aren't realistic, Wedding said.

"I think some of those things were deliberately used as exaggerated examples to show what's being done," Wedding said. "I don't look at any of them being likely to happen."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes

Pinellas County looks at saving money by trumping cities' building rules 09/25/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 26, 2011 12:07am]
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