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As Council vote approaches, historical preservation battle intensifies

For months, a fight over whether St. Petersburg changes the way it designates local historic districts has flared up days, only to simmer as City Council members have kicked the can down the road.

The hopes of council members has been delaying the final vote from April to Aug. 20 would give space for a compromise to emerge between those who want to make it easier for neighborhoods to become historic and those who see any weakening of the current ordinance as anti-development and an attack on property rights.

That hasn't happened. The summer has seen robocalls and fliers paid for by the Pinellas Realtors Organization warning residents of a "small minority" controlling property decisions. Preservationists have countered by inviting high-profile experts like Donovan Rypkema, who met with council members Monday, to argue the economic and cultural benefits of historic districts.

Days before the vote, no clear middle ground has emerged. In fact, Thursday's meeting should a long (and perhaps long-winded) council meeting, even by St. Petersburg standards.

But it might well be now or never. Incoming council member Ed Montanari is a staunch opponents of weakening the current ordinance--- which requires 2/3 of all property owners to vote for a district. And four of the five candidates for District 7 say they don't support the preservationist position. The fifth, Lisa Wheeler-Brown, says she's still making her mind up.

As it stands, council members Bill Dudley and Steve Kornell are likely no votes. Council members Wengay Newton and Karl Nurse are keeping open minds, but have serious reservations about making the application process easier.

Council member Jim Kennedy is leaning yes. As is council member Darden Rice. Amy Foster and Charlie Gerdes are either undecided or not sharing their positions publicly.

That's a recipe for a wearying pitched battle at City Hall.

"I'm bringing my cot and sleeping bag to City Hall because it's going to be a long one," quipped Dudley.

St. Petersburg Preservation and its allies originally wanted a simple majority of those who returned ballots to determine an election. Opponents say this could mean a small group of activists could swing an election and advance a neighborhood's application. Under all scenarios, the City Council would have final say.

This week, a possible compromise emerged from city staff. In a staff report, a new two-step procedure would be required to initiate an application.

First, supporters would have 120 days to get petition signatures from 30 percent of all property owners. Then, a 60-day election would be held in which 67 percent of respondent would need to say yes for the application to advance. The city would administer the election.

That proposal has, perhaps predictably, satisfied no one.

Peter Belmont, vice-president of St. Petersburg Preservation, said it was unclear to him any consensus for that proposal emerged from the July workshop.

Bob Griendling, co-founder of Protect St. Pete's Property Rights, said he didn't see any need to change the current ordinance. He said any changes could allow "political intrigue and machinations."

Rypkema said that cities often squabble over historic districts, but St. Petersburg's fight is an outlier.

"There aren't many places where it is this onerous," he said.

But, Rypkema, who runs a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., said historic districts are a lure for creatives, start-ups and home shoppers.

Nearly 90 percent of home buyers cite "character" as a top priority when they are looking for a home, he said. Nothing creates character like a historic district, which also raises property values and brings jobs, he said.

"This is a capitalist plot to raise values, not a socialist plot to lower them," he said.

The public hearing is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Thursday in council chambers at City Hall, 175 5th St N.

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