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Precinct sees jump in voter turnout

A proposed apartment complex for low-income tenants on Forest Lakes Boulevard may be what drew more voters to the polls.

Historically, Oldsmar City Council candidates have virtually ignored neighborhoods north of Tampa Road.

Until this year, it was no secret that candidates were better off concentrating on the city's two other precincts, where voter turnout tended to run considerably higher than in Precinct 629.

But those days appear to be over.

Voters of Precinct 629, which includes subdivisions north of Tampa Road on Forest Lakes Boulevard and Pine Avenue N, cast ballots in record numbers in last week's city elections.

"It changed the dynamics," said former mayor Jeff Sandler, who decided not to seek re-election this year. "In 1996, my campaigning in that precinct was putting two signs up."

With 25.7 percent of the registered voters of Precinct 629 turning out for last week's election, the polling location at Forest Lakes Elementary School drew 444 ballots _ more votes than it had in 1997, 1998 and 1999 combined. It also had almost twice as many votes this year as it did in the March 2000 presidential primary, when more voters tend to turn out than for a typical city election.

Precinct 629 also had a higher voter turnout than Precinct 631, which is in Gull Aire Village, a neighborhood of mostly retired residents known for showing up at the polls. This election, about 19.8 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Precinct 631. Precinct 630, the city's largest and oldest precinct, drew 26.5 percent. The citywide voter turnout this election was 24.2 percent.

So why did the voters of Precinct 629 finally awaken?

"I think there are more issues now in this area, and there are young families who are moving in," Lois Young, 71, said after she voted Tuesday at precinct 629. "They have made an investment with their home, so they are more interested in being part of the city."

But others say residents at precinct 629 showed up at the polls this year because of a controversial proposal to build an apartment complex for low-income tenants on Forest Lakes Boulevard.

Residents there quickly formed the Oldsmar Citizen's Re-Zoning Committee to oppose the project. The committee is organized, computer-savvy and effective at getting its message out to members.

"The issue that motivated people to vote was the (proposed) apartments," Sandler said. "They were able to organize and push their issue and move it to the forefront. The voters seemed to reward the candidates who came out and staked out a position in vehement opposition to the complex."

The three winners _ Mayor Jerry Beverland and new council members Don Bohr and Marcelo Caruso _ were listed in fliers that the group distributed days before the election as the candidates who "have publicly supported our opposition."

"I applaud them for turning out," said former Mayor Jerry Provenzano, who helped Beverland's opponent, former council member Ed Manny, during his unsuccessful campaign. "I invite the people in Forest Lakes to not become a single-issue group. If they go back to being apathetic after their one issue is resolved, then nothing is gained."

The rezoning committee seems to have the same sentiment. It is in the process of incorporating a non-profit group called the Oldsmar Community Alliance, said Michael Lucas, alliance president.

"By forming the Oldsmar Community Alliance, we won't feel pigeonholed into one area, and we can spread out a little bit and work with the citizens of Oldsmar with other issues that come out," he said.

Lucas said the rezoning committee did not endorse the three winning candidates. To do so, state statutes would have required the group to register as a political committee. Lucas said the rezoning committee merely urged residents to vote and listed the candidates who supported the group's position.

"These were absolutely not endorsements," Lucas said. "We were just trying to promote awareness of our group and our group's activities and encourage people to vote and pay attention to the issues."

But Sandler said that now that the three have been elected, their comments could come back to hurt the city. When the proposal comes before the new council for approval, the elected officials might have to sit as a quasi-judicial board and act more like judges who are required to base their decision on the evidence before them and the laws that apply to it _ not whether most people like the idea.

"Clearly with the public statements that were made, the builder has very interesting points to be made about whether the decision has already been made without any presentations of fact or presentations to the city," said Sandler, a real estate attorney. "It is irresponsible to come out and say, "I'm not voting for it.' To do that puts the city in a precarious situation and probably damns the city when it comes to denying the proposal."

Beverland and Caruso promised voters in a candidate forum in February that they would vote against the proposal. Bohr said he would "fight it with every legal means possible."

In contrast, Manny said that though he would not vote for it, he also would not do "anything that is irresponsible or illegal and get the city into another lawsuit."

Beverland said, "You could almost say that Ed (Manny) got me all those votes" at Precinct 629.

"Why did they come out and vote?" Beverland said. "Because the council did not respond to their wishes. I'll put it to you this way: Ed Manny didn't help them, so they came out and voted against him."

Sandler said that "was a gross misstatement" of what happened. When the residents showed up at the council meeting in February, the city had just begun to review the plans. Sandler told the crowd to organize and wait until after the election to address their concerns to the new council.

"It would have been grossly irresponsible for me to sit there as mayor and say "I guarantee that this will not happen,' " Sandler said. "As the vice mayor, had (Manny) said something like that, it would have been perceived as irresponsible and as a result he suffered politically because of it."

Beverland said he will deliver on his promise. He said he will propose three ordinances to make it more difficult to build apartments in the city.

The first would require apartments to have sprinkler systems. The second would require multistory buildings to have elevators. The third would add a more restrictive zoning classification for churches. That could be pertinent because the land where the complex is proposed is owned by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

"It's very simple," Sandler said. "The people voted for who they thought would best represent their interest. Now the people will have to see if that in fact is what is delivered. There is always a huge gulf between what people promise during their campaign and what they can deliver when they are elected."

_ Staff writer Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or quiocosptimes.com.

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