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St. Petersburg lowers threshold for designating historic neighborhoods

ST. PETERSBURG — It's a battle that began five years ago and really caught fire on social media and in front yards and sidewalks in neighborhoods like Old Northeast and Kenwood this year.

The City Council tried to forge a compromise between those who want to make it easier for a neighborhood to gain historic status and those who think such efforts infringe on property rights and stymie development. A vote was delayed for four months to try to find an elusive middle ground.

On Thursday, before a packed council chamber with competing buttons — Preserve the Burg for preservationists and Keep 2/3 for those who want to keep the current rules in place, the council finally took a stand.

After nearly seven hours of debate at nearly 1:30 a.m. today, the council voted 5-3 to lower the threshold needed for a neighborhood to initiate historic status to a simple majority of property owners.

A half-dozen failed votes tested the nerves of a hardy band of partisans who stayed until the end. But, perhaps fittingly, the end really wasn't the end.

The council also requested staff to revamp the ordinance language to make design guidelines more neighborhood specific.

"This is going to take a matter of months," said city Administrator Gary Cornwell.

If the council adopts the changes, then it would take 1,100 residents of the Old Northeast neighborhood to start the historic process. That neighborhood was heavily represented in council chambers.

Before their own marathon debate, council members listened to more than three hours of public comment from nearly 100 speakers on both sides of the issue. Debate among council members didn't start until very late Thursday.

Currently, two thirds of all property owners must agree before it proceeds to a city commission and, ultimately, the City Council. But preservationists say absentee owners have hamstrung efforts in Old Northeast and other neighborhoods to protect their distinct character. They wanted a simple majority of property owners who vote to decide.

Only three small neighborhoods have historic status: Roser Park, Lang's Bungalow Court and Granada Terrace.

"The process is set up to fail," said Bill Heyen, a Kenwood resident who supports the changes. "The current process is unobtainable and a process that is unobtainable is not a process."

Opponents, including the Pinellas Realtors Organization and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, say that would allow a small minority to infringe on their property rights. They also contended historic status would increase costs for repairs, an argument disputed by city staff and preservationists.

"Private property rights are our number one issue," said Joe Farrell, public affairs director for the Realtor organization. "We see this as overreach."

On Thursday, preservationists urged the council to adopt the compromise, stressing that only those who vote in a neighborhood election should have a say. Currently, a nonresponse is counted as a no vote.

"Counting people who don't vote is not democracy," said Linda Dobbs, a Granada Terrace resident.

Ultimately, the council ignored the voting arguments of preservationists and disappointed property rights supporters.

Council members Amy Foster, Bill Dudley and Wengay Newton voted against the final compromise.

"That was some ugly sausage making," said council member Karl Nurse after the vote.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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