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Questions fly in vote on future of airport

Here is the difference between politicians and lawyers:

The City Council wanted to give voters a single, user-friendly question to determine the fate of St. Petersburg's waterfront airport: "Do you want to retain Albert Whitted Airport, yes or no?"

Then it was up to City Attorney John Wolfe to craft the language that would appear on the November ballot. He showed his version to City Council members Tuesday.

The simple sentence was replaced by several long paragraphs. In fact, Wolfe recommended the council put three different questions related to the airport on the ballot.

The first asks voters to decide whether the site now used for Albert Whitted should continue to be an airport. The second will ask if the city can accept 20-year federal grants to maintain the airport. The third deals with whether the city should have accepted those 20-year federal grants in the past.

Even the council members were left scratching their heads in confusion.

"I don't know if we're still leaving doors open," said Council member James Bennett. "Are we getting a concrete answer to the main question?"

Wolfe said the questions were necessary because they cover different aspects of the airport's future. Some critics have argued the city erred in accepting 20-year grants from the Federal Aviation Administration to maintain the airport because under the city's charter, waterfront property is not supposed to be encumbered for more than 10 years.

"You should try to structure an ordinance when possible so that it only covers a single subject," Wolfe said. "Retaining the airport is not the only question."

The council will vote Thursday on whether to send notification to residents who live near Albert Whitted to inform them of the upcoming referendum.

The ballot questions won't be finalized until after the council holds public hearings in August and September and takes a final vote.

Rick Carr, president of the Albert Whitted Airport Preservation Society, said there will have to be a lot of public education before November.

"Even for people who follow the issue on a daily basis, the language is confusing," he said. "You could say yes to the airport but say no to the funding that allows the airport to be maintained."

There might also be another airport-related question for voters to decide. Citizens for a New Waterfront Park, the grassroots group trying to replace the airport with a 60-acre park, has collected 7,500 signatures, half of the 15,000 necessary to place their option on the ballot.

To qualify for the ballot, a group must either gather signatures from 10 percent of city residents registered to vote in the last election or seek City Council approval. The group has until the Sept. 23 primary to gather the remaining signatures.

Meanwhile, Mayor Rick Baker plans to hold two community meetings next week to gather public input on the airport issue. The meetings are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday at 6 p.m. The first will be at the University of South Florida's Activity Center; the second at the Azalea Adult Center.

Baker's plan, in which one of the airport's two runways would be closed and acres of land sold for development, is still under review by DMJM, a Tampa aviation company.

_ Carrie Johnson can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or cjohnsonsptimes.com.

Ballot questions

Here are the ballot questions proposed by City Attorney John Wolfe relating to Albert Whitted Airport:

1. Shall City Charter Section 1.02 relating to Park and Waterfront Property be amended to require all or at least a part of the land now occupied by Albert Whitted Airport be continued to be used for airport uses? Yes or no.

2. Shall City Charter Section 1.02 relating to Park and Waterfront Property be amended to allow City Council, by resolution and without the need for notice or referendum to authorize entering into agreements to restrict the use of Albert Whitted Airport to airport uses for periods of up to 20 years in order to accept grants from governmental agencies? Yes or no.

3. Shall the previous agreements between the Federal Aviation Administration and the city, which resulted in the city receiving grants for Albert Whitted Airport in exchange for agreeing to limit Albert Whitted Airport to airport uses for periods of up to 20 years with the last agreement expiring in 2022, be ratified and approved? Yes or no.

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