For years city and county officials have argued over the definition of one word: "contiguous."
Now the county is trying to define it, and several cities have threatened to sue because they feel the county is trying to stymie cities' annexation efforts.
At a meeting Tuesday, the Pinellas County Commission decided in a 5-2 vote that the language of the ordinance governing proposed voluntary annexations will remain the same, but the county staff will now use numerical guidelines to evaluate proposed annexations.
A piece of property will be considered contiguous if at least 50 percent of one of its boundaries touches adjoining city property. In addition, 18 percent of its total perimeter should touch city property.
"Trying to develop some more quantifiable guidelines should avoid complicated disputes over what is contiguous and what is not," County Administrator Steve Spratt told the commission.
The new guidelines will still allow the County Commission to take other factors into consideration, he said.
But some officials say the change in policy guidelines is confusing and may open up the county to legal action from cities.
Pinellas Planning Council executive director David Healey said the commission's decision created a "no man's land" outside the legal guidelines provided by the ordinance.
"I think it sets an arbitrary standard outside the formal framework that will be likely to be challenged," he said.
Largo City Manager Steve Stanton said the commission's decision was "unlawful."
"If people want to annex, they should be able to do so," Largo City Manager Steve Stanton said Tuesday afternoon. "The county needs to be honest and not construct artificial, and in this case, unlawful barriers to annexation. . . . They're inserting criteria that is not in the ordinance."
Healey told the commission that changes to the criteria would make annexation proposals even more difficult to consider.
"Don't make the process worse than it is by complicating it with inappropriate and unworkable standards," he said.
Spratt said the county needs more precise criteria for evaluating annexations, citing annexations along Roosevelt Boulevard in Largo over the past two years as an example of inefficient planning.
"I hardly believe that that is also substantially contiguous and compact, but yet those are the decisions that have been made over the past couple of years," he said.
Stanton said later Tuesday that voluntary annexations are inevitably illogical because they are driven by individuals asking to join the city's borders rather than by city or county planners.
The proposed guidelines drew ire from city officials across Pinellas County when they were first circulated last month.
Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs officials said they would sue if the county refused to drop the proposed changes to the ordinance. And the Pinellas Planning Council, a 13-member advisory board which includes 11 elected city officials, voted to reject any changes.
County officials have maintained that the numerical guidelines are not intended to encroach on the cities' power to annex.
"This has gotten way out of control," Commissioner Susan Latvala said at Tuesday's meeting. "This is between us and our staff. The cities have taken this and used it as another way of going after the county."
Latvala added, "I think it's appropriate that we give direction to our staff about what we want."
Commissioners Ronnie Duncan, Robert Stewart, Chairman John Morroni and Vice Chairman Kenneth Welch also joined Latvala in voting in favor of the guidelines.
At Tuesday's meeting, Pinellas Park Assistant City Manager Tom Shevlin said the proposed numerical guidelines were artificial.
"It's just creating another barrier to a citizen who has decided to annex into a community. . . . I really don't feel that there's a need for this," he said. "The system is working."
After the meeting, Shevlin said he was happy with the county's decision not to change the language of the ordinance.
"They're not changing the law; they're just doing something internal," he said. "That's certainly their prerogative."
Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris said the city would likely consider legal action in the future if the county denies an annexation request using criteria not explicitly mentioned in the ordinance.
Commissioner Karen Seel and Commissioner Calvin Harris voted against the change in policy guidelines.
"It will just be another bone of contention" between the cities and the county, Harris said in an interview. "It's counterproductive."
Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichetsptimes.com or (727) 771-4307.