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Plant purchase idea may help on annexation

Pinellas Park proposes buying Largo's sewer plant as a means of solving the annexation dispute between the two cities.

City Manager Jerry Mudd has proposed a radical solution to end the annexation wars _ let Pinellas Park buy Largo's sewer treatment plant.

As part of the deal, Pinellas Park would pledge to supply sewer service to property owners in what is now the Largo sewer district, but annexation would not be required to receive those services.

The purchase of the plant would solve several problems, Mudd wrote in a memo last week explaining his reasoning.

First, it would ensure that property owners retain their basic right to decide freely whether to annex and where to annex without fear they will be denied sewer service. Second, it would increase the chances for economic development in that area by permanently resolving the annexation war between Pinellas Park and Largo.

Pinellas Park would offer to buy the sewer plant, Mudd said in the memo, only if Largo failed to agree to annexation boundaries and policies similar to those recently proposed by Pinellas County Administrator Fred Marquis.

Mudd's idea is the latest in a controversy that began last summer over proposed annexation boundaries in mid-county for Pinellas Park and Largo. As the two cities failed to reach a boundary agreement, relations deteriorated until Largo decided to deny sewer service to a multimillion-dollar hotel project that had annexed into Pinellas Park rather than Largo. Largo also threatened to cut off sewer service to another business that had annexed more land into Pinellas Park.

Largo could do this because the area generally north of 126th Avenue N is in that city's sewer district. Largo requires property owners to sign annexation agreements before providing sewer service in the area.

But the denial of service and the threats to cut off service enraged the Pinellas Park council, which decided to sue Largo over the situation. Largo countersued. Pinellas County joined Pinellas Park's side.

The Largo council decided Jan. 18 to sue Pinellas Park for continuing to annex property north of 126th Avenue, even though that city has long annexed properties there. The Largo council said Pinellas Park lacks the ability to give municipal services to property owners in that area, partially because Pinellas Park has no sewer service there.

Before any of the cases can go to court, the cities and county must go through a mediation process. That's been happening for the first round of potential lawsuits. Now that Largo has added more suits to the mix, a separate mediation process will kick in.

It's likely that any solution to the initial disputes would settle all potential suits.

As part of the original mediation, Marquis had proposed a plan in which both the cities and the county would have annexation planning areas.

Property owners who live in each city's annexation area would have the choice of annexing into the appropriate city or remaining in the county, without threats that sewer or other services would be denied if annexation was rejected.

Property owners in the county planning area could voluntarily annex into either city or remain in the county. They also would be free from threats that sewer or other services would be denied if they chose to stay in the county.

That proposal, which Mudd calls the Marquis plan, has support from all sides of the dispute.

"If there's hope of resolving this issue short of the courts, the best hope lies with some version of the Marquis plan," Mudd said.

Largo City Manager Steve Stanton agreed the concept has merit.

"It's a good start," Stanton said. "It's not the solution, but it's a real good start."

Largo's qualms include the boundaries that would be set for each city, as well as making sure the limits become part of state law. That way, Stanton said, the law could prevent either city from stepping across the boundary.

Stanton said he also wants to make sure that property owners in the unincorporated county pay their fair share of utilities, such as sewer service. Right now, Stanton said, the real cost of providing such services is "artificially low" for county residents because the costs are passed on to city dwellers. That, he said, makes county property owners reluctant to annex into cities.

Mudd said he recognizes that Largo may not agree to any part of the Marquis plan. That's why Pinellas Park needs an alternate solution, such as buying Largo's sewer treatment plant.

"I think that's a good idea," Stanton said. "We're not going to sell them our plant, but if they want to build their own, that's a great idea."

He estimated the Largo plant is worth about $80-million.