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Neighbors join border war on own terms

Residents of Seminole Lake Country Club Estates take the offensive to become part of Seminole.

The neighborhood has the feeling of a gated community without a gate.

Large waterfront homes sit around its edges. A private golf course zags through its center bordered by condominiums and by single-family homes that nearly all are worth $200,000 or more.

Despite its apparent prosperity and comfort, Seminole Lake Country Club Estates could be described as a refugee, a neighborhood fleeing the annexation wars.

Its residents began to worry a while back about the battles among Largo, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg over what areas each city could make its own.

"Pinellas Park laid claim to our area, and nobody here was excited about that," said homeowners association president Sam Skemp. "We're not saying Pinellas Park is not a nice place or St. Petersburg is not a nice place or Largo is not a nice place."

So, neighborhood representatives decided to go on the offensive. If annexation is eventually inevitable, they said, they wanted to pick the city to join.

"We figured probably it was better to take the initiative than to be gobbled up," Skemp said. "We feel we have a very nice neighborhood, and we'd like to determine our future and not have someone else determine it."

They decided to go call on Seminole.

"We felt we had a closer association with Seminole," Skemp said.

Now, after about a month of study by the homeowners group, it appears likely that the neighborhood will join Seminole.

At a homeowners association meeting recently attended by 200 to 300 people, not one person voted against pursuing annexation. A referendum is expected around the first of April.

"I think it's the right thing to do for our neighborhood," said Steve Miller, immediate past president of the homeowners association.

Seminole officials are delighted.

"This is probably one of the best annexations the city has ever done for several reasons," Mayor Dottie Reeder said. "If you think about what would be the perfect piece of property or neighborhood or area to annex, that's one."

Seminole Lake Country Club Estates is an umbrella name for several condominium developments and small subdivisions clustered around the Seminole Lake County Club, which has an 18-hole golf course and a racquet and swim club. It encompasses about 650 housing units and more than 1,000 registered voters.

For Seminole, the addition would be propitious:

It would increase the taxable value of property in the city by 20 percent. The current city tax base is just over $325-million; the taxable value of Seminole Lake Country Club Estates is about $65.5-million.

The average assessed value of homes in Seminole last year was $67,700. The condominiums in Seminole Lake Country Club Estates range from about $50,000 up, but the homes tend to be assessed at $125,000 and above. One is assessed for taxes at $871,800.

It would increase the city's population by more than 10 percent. The city now has about 10,000 residents and 6,500 registered voters.

It would increase the city's area by about 22 percent. The current boundaries encompass about 2.1 square miles or 1,344 acres. The area to be annexed equals 300 acres.

It would bring in a large neighborhood of professionals who officials said they would hope would become involved in civic activities. The neighborhood is a mix of retirees and younger people, many of whom are doctors or lawyers.

"I have no doubt they will have a representative on council soon," Reeder said.

The annexation talks started late last year when a small committee appointed by the homeowners association went to see City Manager Frank Edmunds.

Edmunds said he gave them an overview of the city's financial status, its long-term plans and goals and its upcoming projects, including the new $5.8-million recreation center and the possible joint use library with St. Petersburg Junior College.

Then, Edmunds appeared before about 60 people at the homeowners association's December meeting and before the 200 to 300 people at the recent meeting.

"I told them the city is very sound financially. We have a good, stable municipal government. We strive to provide good services. We have initiated a wide range of public projects," Edmunds said.

He explained that it won't cost them more to live in the city. Each homeowner should see a property tax savings of about $50 to a few hundred dollars, depending on the value, he said.

He said he also told them that Seminole wants to grow by annexation, too, but it has taken a more laid-back attitude than some of the neighboring cities.

"They checked us out," Edmunds said. "They verified (independently) I'm sure everything I said.

Miller, the immediate past president, said that's true.

He and others liked what they saw, especially the political "stability" in Seminole, he said.

They approached Seminole, he said, because of "the very aggressive annexation strategies shown by our bordering municipalities (and) the political fallout reflected in the newspaper as a result of some of those aggressive plans."

He thinks the neighborhood would be well served to join Seminole, Miller said, because "of their quality of politics, as well as the fact that Seminole has what I believe to be a more defined strategy. They were entrepreneurial in their thinking of partnering with SPJC, in their strategy of sharing the library and it was all done with a very openness to the community."

Edmunds and Reeder said several people approached them at the big homeowners meeting and said they couldn't believe they weren't part of the city already. Most of them use Seminole as their mailing address, though the Postal Service classifies the neighborhood as Largo.

"For a good many years, our neighborhood has claimed Seminole as its home," Miller said. "This seemed like a very good time to perhaps make it a reality."