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St. Pete mulls votes on historic neighborhoods

Published Mar. 3, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The distinct histories and architecture of the city's neighborhoods have been credited with fueling its recent renaissance, but a battle has started over what kind of balance to strike between preservation and development.

At issue is a proposed overhaul of the city's historic preservation ordinance — part of a 176-page package recently approved by a city board. Among the revisions: decreasing the number of property owners in a neighborhood that would have to agree before an application for local landmark status could be submitted.

Currently, a neighborhood needs the approval of two-thirds of property owners to apply for landmark status from the city, which comes with property tax exemptions up to 10 years for property improvements. But the designation can also put constraints on property owners' "external modifications," requiring city staff to review or, potentially, a public hearing if a property owner wants to do any additions or make changes such as new windows or a roof.

When the City Council takes up the matter in April, members will be presented with two options:

• To simply lower the percentage of property owners needing to sign off from 66.6 percent to a simple majority.

• To change the voting process to count only those who vote. Property owners who don't vote wouldn't have any influence over the decision. In this scenario, only those who vote matter, and then only a simple majority would be needed.

The second option is supported by St. Petersburg Preservation and Mayor Rick Kriseman, but it has raised concerns that making it easier to seek historic status will stymie redevelopment and raise costs for home­owners seeking to remodel or expand their homes.

"There's a reason there is a pretty high bar. We want to make it difficult," said Ed Montanari, the only member of the Community Planning and Preservation Commission that voted against the proposal last month.

The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce also wants further discussion on the issue.

"We are a destination right now that's very popular. We want to balance all the wonderful things that make St. Petersburg special with all the historical areas of our community with opportunities to redevelop going forward," said Chris Steinocher, chamber president and CEO.

Currently, just three neighborhoods have local landmark designation: Roser Park, Granada Terrace and Lang's Bungalow Court.

Efforts in Kenwood and other parts of Old Northeast have fallen short because the current bar is too high, said Peter Belmont, St. Petersburg Preservation's vice president.

"It's particularly difficult to get absentee landlords to respond," Belmont said. "St. Pete isn't making some sort of radical change. In fact, it's closer to the norm."

Most other cities don't even require a vote to apply for historic status, he said. And, the planning and preservation board and City Council would still have to approve any move toward landmark designation if a neighborhood votes to proceed, Belmont said.

Studies have also shown that property values tend to rise within historic neighborhoods as compared with nonprotected areas, he said. A recent University of Florida study showed that to be true statewide between 2006 and 2009.

"There's evidence all over the country that (landmark status) is good for neighborhoods. If it's good for neighborhoods, it's good for the city," Belmont said.

But council member Karl Nurse isn't convinced. He thinks a simple majority of people who turn out to vote in a neighborhood is setting the bar too low. Considering how low the turnout in such an election would likely be, the neighborhood's fate could be influenced by a tiny number of people, he said.

"It's pretty excessive," Nurse said, adding that he would consider supporting the alternate option of a simple majority of all property owners within the neighborhood's boundaries. That would increase the number of residents who would have a say in moving forward, he said.

"It should be difficult, but not impossible," Nurse said.

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

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