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State gives okay to annex preserve

Despite strong objections from Pinellas County commissioners, the state has agreed to let St. Petersburg expand its city limits to encompass 700 acres of state-owned land near the Howard Frankland Bridge.

The move is the first step toward the city trying to annex the growing Feather Sound area north of St. Petersburg, city officials say.

"It's a very naked move," said Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart, who said he was "disappointed" at the state's decision.

The 700 acres is known as the Gateway Preserve, which lies along the shore of Tampa Bay just north of Weedon Island. The state bought the land in the mid 1980s at the urging of Pinellas officials, who wanted to see it preserved from development, Stewart said.

"There's no question that is choice land," he said.

County money helped pay for the purchase, and the county has been in charge of managing the preserve ever since, Stewart said.

The state and county even worked together in preparing a management plan, according to a letter that commission chairwoman Barbara Sheen Todd sent to the state last month, objecting to the annexation.

In her Oct. 18 letter, Todd contended that the city zoning code would not protect the land from development as well as the county code does.

Todd also wrote that the county has greater experience and resources for managing environmentally sensitive lands. She said the Gateway Preserve is of such regional significance that it should be controlled by the county, not a city.

Todd's letter went to state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs, who, according to Stewart, did not bother to respond. Instead, on Monday, Struhs wrote a letter to Mayor Rick Baker, approving the annexation and not mentioning the county's objections.

His letter clears the way for city officials to consider the annexation at an upcoming meeting.

DEP spokeswoman Kathalyn Gaither said Thursday that the dispute "is out of our hands. It's between the city and the county."

"That's a handoff if ever there was one," said Stewart, who said DEP's snub of county officials was "out of character."

Baker said the city has no desire to boot the county off the preserve. Instead, he said, he hopes county officials will continue to manage the property, and he vowed it will continue to be preserved too.

The mayor portrayed the annexation as the first step in a move to add other, more valuable chunks of land to St. Petersburg's tax base.

"It will help us in our efforts to annex other properties," the mayor said.

The law does not allow cities to hopscotch around, grabbing land wherever they want. Instead, they are limited to annexing only contiguous land. By adding the Gateway Preserve, the city's boundary would be moved next door to something very desirable.

"Feather Sound is right there," said city planning director David Goodwin.

There is a more immediate benefit to the annexation too, Goodwin said. Currently the city's "Welcome to St. Petersburg" sign is near the Toytown landfill, so the first thing many visitors entering the city on Interstate 275 see is the garbage incinerator.

"We'd love to stick our sign out there a little further up the interstate" so that the first thing tourists would see would be the high-rises of the Gateway area, he said.

The city's move to expand its boundaries has unsettled a fragile truce between the two sometimes antagonistic local governments.

County commissioners recently agreed to take over ownership of Tropicana Field, at the city's request, to save city taxpayers $1.4-million a year in property taxes. Both sides talked then about how the two governments would work together more often.

But the Gateway annexation, and the possibility of losing the valuable Feather Sound area, sparked bitter complaints at a County Commission meeting last month.