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McMansions, state sewage order on tap at St. Petersburg City Council

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council is set Thursday to vote on two major issues: controversial zoning changes aimed at curbing big McMansion-style homes and a consent order with the state that will require St. Petersburg to fix its ailing sewage system.

The proposed zoning changes are likely to invite the most public comment. The changes are designed to keep people from razing older homes in historic neighborhoods and replacing them with bigger McMansion-style homes.

Supporters of the ordinance say it will keep people from building super-sized homes that take up most of the lot compared to older, more modest homes. They fear the bigger, boxier homes could crowd and detract from the respective neighborhoods' styles.

There are two kinds of critics of the ordinances: those who say who say it goes too far and those who say it doesn't go far enough.

Some opponents say they will keep the city from revitalizing its aging housing market to draw in younger people, especially families.

Others say the new ordinances don't do enough to prevent such large houses from being built.

The ordinances address standards for modifications to existing homes as well as stipulations for new ones, restricting the "floor area ratio" or FAR, by dictating how much of the lot the home can take up. Regulating FAR is rare, chief zoning official Liz Abernethy told the council last week. Few jurisdictions in Florida have legislation on the books restricting it, and those that do mostly apply it to commercial buildings, not residential ones.

At the July 13 council meeting, more than 20 residents from historic neighborhoods implored the council to restrict the FAR beyond what the zoning commission had suggested.

"I came here because I wanted a sense of community," said Lucy Trimarco, who moved to a small bungalow in Crescent Lake from Palm Harbor. "But one block away from me there are three tear-downs. This is happening so fast. We are losing our sense of place. Without that, I wouldn't want to be here."

City Council meeting will start at 3 p.m. and public comment on the ordinance is set to take place at 6 p.m. The council will vote on the ordinance afterward.

Also on the agenda is a vote to approve a pending consent order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The city has agreed to spend hundreds of millions to fix a sewage system that released up to 200 million gallons from 2015-16.

At last week's meeting, Council members tabled a vote on the order due to continued uncertainty about the city's ability to pay the $326 million list of mandated improvements. The order also carries a $820,000 penalty.

"(The state) is looking at the consent order as a resolution to some of their investigations," said City Administrator Gary Cornwell. "We're going to have to do this one way or another."

If the Penny for Pinellas sales tax referendum passes in the fall, the city could gain $90 million to put toward the order over the next 10 years. The rest could be covered by hikes in utility rates, money that was set aside in the budget for future sewage issues or loans, if necessary.

Some members cautioned it would be dangerous to approve the order without knowing how the fine would be paid. Some chastised others for dragging their feet on such a pressing issue.

"I think the only voice clearer than the state is the voice of the citizens," said City Council member Karl Nurse. "I don't think we should be even slightly reticent about telling the public, 'This is the cost.' The cavalry is not coming on this one."

The council meeting will be held at City Hall, 175 5th St. N.