ST. PETERSBURG — For months, a dispute over historic preservation has simmered while the City Council has delayed a vote.
Council members hoped that delaying the final vote from April until today would give time for a compromise for the two groups involved: those who want to make it easier for neighborhoods to be designated 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, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant who met with council members Monday, to argue the economic and cultural benefits of historic districts.
On the day of the vote, no clear middle ground has emerged. In fact, today's meeting should be long (and perhaps long-winded), even by St. Petersburg standards.
But it might as well be now or never. Incoming council member Ed Montanari is a staunch opponents of weakening the current ordinance — which requires two-thirds of all property owners to vote for a district. And four of the five candidates for District 7 — Sheila-Scott Griffin, Will Newton, Aaron Sharpe and Lewis Stephens — 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 protracted 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 that any consensus emerged from a 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.
Nearly 90 percent of home buyers cite "character" as a top priority when they are looking for a home, Rypkema 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. today in council chambers at City Hall, 175 Fifth St N.
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.