The city of St. Petersburg should walk away from an annexation petition by a group of waterfront commercial property owners in Tierra Verde. The effort is unfolding in a way that is starting to smell like three-day-old fish.
St. Petersburg and unincorporated Tierra Verde are separated by a waterway and a different community vision. In the main, the residents of the quiet enclave of Tierra Verde don't want intense development on their island of low-density housing and small businesses. But the owners of the Tierra Verde Marina, the Tierra Verde Yacht and Racquet Club Condos and the Tierra Verde Resort Marina apparently see their future differently.
These owners must see big dollar signs in changing from Pinellas County to city governance. They must think that St. Petersburg will offer a friendlier ear for their redevelopment plans, including potentially more generous height and density allowances. St. Petersburg chief assistant city attorney Mark Winn says that he "wouldn't be surprised if that were one of (the property owners') thoughts." Winn says the city sees the annexation as only a net benefit with no added costs for providing services to the annexed area. Really? That's hard to believe.
The Tierra Verde Community Association says the people of Tierra Verde want to be left alone. It worries about the toehold that St. Petersburg will establish with this annexation. It worries that one of the marinas may be looking to establish a water shuttle service to floating gambling operations. It worries that significant future development will be allowed that alters the character of the island hamlet. All legitimate concerns and reason enough for St. Petersburg to put aside its parochial interests out of consideration for regional goodwill.
Pinellas County also plans to object to the annexation, first by letter and an attempt at persuasion. But if the city persists, there is always the potential for a lawsuit, a real waste of resources in these tight budget times, but the county might have no alternative.
State law requires that any annexation must be contiguous and reasonably compact. Winn says the plan follows the law and would be contiguous, which is true as long as you disregard the water separating the two land masses — logic that makes California and Japan contiguous as well. Looking at a map makes clear that there is nothing compact or contiguous about the plan.
Another disturbing aspect of the annexation effort is the tactics used by owners of the Tierra Verde Resort Marina against more than a dozen live-aboard residents. Because these residents registered to vote using 200 Madonna Blvd. as their address, the annexation plan could not proceed without a referendum in which they got a vote. This sparked action on the part of Timothy Haws, who was then the property's project manager. He contacted the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office to try to get some of these voters removed from the rolls at the Madonna Boulevard address.
One person who lived at the marina said she was threatened with eviction if she didn't change her voter registration address.
The elections office sent certified letters to confirm the addresses of a number of marina voters but they were intercepted by Haws, who returned them as undeliverable, according to Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark. The marina owners say that these people no longer have any connection to their address. This alleged voter intimidation and interference prompted the elections office to file a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department.
At this point the marina owners have succeeded. There are now no voters registered at their facility. Also, in a surfeit of caution, the city has removed the submerged land under the marina in its latest annexation report.
St. Petersburg will hold public hearings on the annexation petition on May 8 and 15. At that time members of the City Council should appreciate that they have a big enough city to worry about without reaching out well beyond the city's borders and taking a piece of someone else's neighborhood.