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Some in south Pinellas will lobby officials for protection.
Published Feb. 11, 2008

Activists from across south Pinellas gathered last week to work out strategies they could use to keep their communities from being nibbled away by annexations.

They decided that combining efforts would be best in getting state or county officials to enact rules that would protect them from the threat of annexation.

That lobbying effort is the prime push for members of the Lealman Community Association and USEM, based in the unincorporated Seminole area. Neither area is facing the threat of imminent annexation.

But for members of the Tierra Verde Community Association it's an immediate troubling concern. They said the lobbying strategy is just one part of a three-prong attack on a proposed annexation of two commercial areas by St. Petersburg.

The other strategies include investigating further the possibility of forming a city of Tierra Verde and fighting the proposed annexation any other way they can.

"I don't see any choice," said Jack Parker, director of the Tierra Verde group. "I think we should fight this annexation as far as we can, (but) this is just postponing things far enough so that we can incorporate. ... It seems our only choice is to incorporate."

Leaders of the LCA and USEM, which has members who live in all parts of unincorporated Pinellas, pledged that they would support all of Tierra Verde's efforts. That would include the push for incorporation. The Tierra Verde Community Association already has hired a consultant to study the feasibility of incorporation.

The meeting took place Tuesday, the evening before the first meeting of a committee made up of three members each of the Pinellas County Commission and the Pinellas Planning Council. The committee's goal is to find solutions to the annexation problems that have plagued Pinellas during the past decade. Committee members gave themselves a year to reach some agreement.

But a year may be too long for Tierra Verde and Lealman.

St. Petersburg is trying to annex the Tierra Verde Marina, the Tierra Verde Resort, and a number of residential and commercial lots near the Pinellas Bayway and Madonna Boulevard.

The annexation effort has stalled because of snags in the election process - voters who were previously unknown to the city living on boats in the area and a dead man who is registered to vote. Also holding up the process are questions about fire service on the island if the annexation goes through.

Lealman is somewhat protected by a state law that forces annexing cities to temporarily pay taxes to the Lealman Fire District.

But the law sunsets July 1, and activists in that unincorporated area are bracing for an expected onslaught from Pinellas Park, which already has signed annexation agreements in hand, and St. Petersburg, which has indicated that it wants the lucrative Joe's Creek Industrial Park area.

Although Lealman has some of the poorest residents in Pinellas and Tierra Verde has some of the wealthiest, antiannexation activists from both camps echo each other when discussing the reasons they do not want to be absorbed into a nearby city.

"In a way, we just enjoy being down at the south end of the county and being left alone," said Dave Striebich of Tierra Verde. Residents there are worried about an increase in density that they say could diminish the island's quality of life.

Mary Ann Shaw agreed, saying the association had polled Tierra Verde residents, and "99 percent of the people do not want annexation."

The result was similar in Lealman, where county officials polled residents several years ago. LCA leaders asked the question again last year. About 97 percent of respondents opposed annexation, LCA president Ray Neri said.

"All we want is to be left alone and let our community pull ourselves up by our bootstraps," Neri said. "We're going to be taken apart by these cities, and that's what we're concerned about."

Neri said the perfect solution is a "community protection act" that would put imaginary fences around areas of Pinellas where residents oppose annexation.

Neri has spoken to county and state officials about the idea. It's not a new one, he said. Orange County has something similar.

In the end, Neri said, county leaders must answer a philosophical question: Do they want to have any unincorporated areas or do they want everyone in one city or another?

If they want everyone to live in a city, then the officials need to do nothing, he said. If they want to preserve unincorporated areas to give people a choice, then the county must act to protect those residents, he said.