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In Safety Harbor, ‘townies versus the developers’ dominates city commission races

Safety Harbor and nine other small Pinellas municipalities will hold elections March 9.
Candidate signs are seen along a street Friday, March 5, 2021 in Safety Harbor. It is one of 10 small Pinellas municipalities that will hold elections March 9, with four mayor’s offices and 19 council or commission seats on the ballots.
Candidate signs are seen along a street Friday, March 5, 2021 in Safety Harbor. It is one of 10 small Pinellas municipalities that will hold elections March 9, with four mayor’s offices and 19 council or commission seats on the ballots. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Mar. 6
Updated Mar. 6

The perennial political argument in Safety Harbor — development vs. preserving what everyone calls “small town charm” — is again dominating city commission campaigns in this community of about 17,000, known as the cutest town around Tampa Bay.

Safety Harbor is one of 10 small Pinellas municipalities that will hold elections March 9, with four mayor’s offices and 19 council or commission seats on the ballots.

Pedestrians are seen along Main Street Friday, March 5, 2021 in Safety Harbor.
Pedestrians are seen along Main Street Friday, March 5, 2021 in Safety Harbor. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Most appear non-controversial, but at least a couple of the mayor’s races and the Safety Harbor commission races are generating some heat.

In Safety Harbor, the argument over development is not as bitter as it was during last year’s mayor’s race, when Mayor Joe Ayoub defeated Tanja Vidovic in a race marred by anonymous, vitriolic web pages. But there’s still been a good bit of what one candidate calls “social media ugliness,” mostly on Facebook.

In the Chamber of Commerce candidate forum last month, virtually every candidate used the phrase “small town charm” at least once, and “quaint” was an aspirational ideal.

Settled in 1823, it’s a town known for tiny, decades-old cottages with pastel paint schemes beloved on Pinterest — which some say are being crushed out of existence by new McMansions.

The preservationists say you can’t remain “Mayberry by the Bay,” as a local blogger called it, with multi-story condos downtown.

Lorraine Duffy Suarez, 63, a candidate for Safety Harbor City Commission seat 1, talks with business owner Brian Feist, 64, not shown, Friday, March 5, 2021 in Safety Harbor.
Lorraine Duffy Suarez, 63, a candidate for Safety Harbor City Commission seat 1, talks with business owner Brian Feist, 64, not shown, Friday, March 5, 2021 in Safety Harbor. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

And everyone worships the town’s vaunted tree canopy, but some accuse others of being too willing to cut it down.

“They call us the townies. It’s the townies versus the developers,” said Jarine Dotson, a retiree and photographer who’s on the side of cute.

“We feel vertical density in our downtown is not consistent with the town we all moved into. The cottages are getting torn down and people who used to have trees surrounding them have had all their shade torn down for a three-story house built right to the lot line.”

The other view:

“What people need to realize is we live in one of the most desirable cities … to believe that you can stop development is just not practical,” said Scott Long, a former commissioner who has been criticized — wrongly, he says — by opponents as overly pro-development.

Long is running again, for commission Seat 3, against Andy Steingold, a former mayor who takes credit for sponsoring the city’s tree ordinance. Like many in Florida, it’s been undercut by the state Legislature’s pre-emption of local tree laws.

An unidentified couple walk along a path near a fountain Friday, March 5, 2021 in Safety Harbor. Safety Harbor is one of 10 small Pinellas municipalities that will hold elections March 9, with four mayor’s offices and 19 council or commission seats on the ballots.
An unidentified couple walk along a path near a fountain Friday, March 5, 2021 in Safety Harbor. Safety Harbor is one of 10 small Pinellas municipalities that will hold elections March 9, with four mayor’s offices and 19 council or commission seats on the ballots. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“I understand that people with families don’t want to live in a 1,000-square-foot home,” Steingold said of the trend toward suburban-style houses. “The fight isn’t to put a moratorium on development, it’s how to bottle that essence of the city and balance it with growth.”

Much of the controversy focuses on the Steingold-Long race, but it’s also a feature in the other two. In Seat 1, Heather Norton and Lorraine Duffy Suarez are challenging incumbent Nancy Besore. In Seat 2, Liz Lindsay is challenging incumbent Cliff Merz.

In general, said Dotson, preservationists are backing Steingold, Besore and Lindsay, a planning board member and “permaculturist” who studies and designs self-sustaining environments.

But the distinctions among the candidates are not clear cut, partly because all advocate trying to maintain the small-town ethos.

Steingold said he’s not clear on specifically where he and Long differ on issues; Long, active in non-profits, said he believes the town’s quaintness stems not from buildings but from an unusual level of community-mindedness and volunteerism.

To former Commissioner Janet Hooper, the issues are environmental — property rights versus tree protection, and the effects on the bay and surrounding property from increased stormwater runoff from building over open land.

“The city remains family-friendly, but bigger homes, bigger buildings take up more space,” she said.

Adding to the confusion is a fuss over endorsements by the Suncoast Sierra Club, which backed Besore and Long.

Critics said the club blindly followed a “smart growth” philosophy that development should be concentrated in an urban core, preventing suburban and rural sprawl.

Intensive, high-rise development downtown is exactly what the Safety Harbor preservationists don’t want. “The condo obliterates the bay view going down 2nd Avenue,” said Dotson.

University of Tampa biologist and ecologist Dan Huber, chairman of the club’s political committee, said after hearing the objections, the group stood by its endorsement of Long, and valued his commitment to renewable energy goals and societal inclusiveness.

But Feingold emphasized his own environmental record on trees and bay water quality, and said the energy goals are impractical.

In at least two of the smallest of Pinellas County’s municipalities, Redington Beach and Treasure Island, mayor’s races are generating some talk.

In Redington Beach, the town’s roughly 1,300 voters will decide the first contested mayor’s race in years, featuring two commissioners who are longtime friends — but one candidate in the non-partisan race is a progressive Democrat, Fred Steiermann, and the other a Trump supporter, David Will, according to posts on his Facebook page.

Treasure Island, about 6,000 voters, will see an old-guard vs. new-blood mayor’s race with Commissioner Tyler Payne, 30, challenging Mayor Lawrence Lunn, 84.

Other races on the ballot March 9:

  • In Belleair, Coleen Chaney, Estelle DeMuesy and Thomas J. Nessler will compete for two commissioner seats.
  • In Belleair Beach, Frank Bankard, Glenn Gunn, Kathleen A. Klaeser, Leslie Notaro and Jody Shirley will compete for three council seats and voters will decide on three charter amendments.
  • In Belleair Bluffs, Stephen McNally, Jack Nazario and Suzy Sofer will compete for two commissioner seats and voters will decide for charter amendments.
  • In Gulfport, Mike Bauer and Christine Anne Brown will vie for the Ward 2 council seat; and Ian O’Hara, Richard Fried and Michael Fridovich for Ward 4.
  • In Kenneth City, Robert J. Howell and Jeffrey J. Pfannes are running for mayor, while Kyle Cummings, Lawrence A. Hauft, Timothy W. Herbert, Barbara Ann Roberts and Christiaan J. Vanderkooi are seeking two council seats.
  • In Oldsmar, Steve Graber and Pamela Settle will compete for Council Seat 1.
  • In Redington Beach, besides the mayor’s race, Rich Cariello, Tim Kornijtschuk, John David Miller and Shawntay Skjoldager will vie for two commission seats. Jason L. Crow will appear on the ballot, but has withdrawn.
  • In Redington Shores, MaryBeth Henderson and Jeffery C. Neal are running for mayor, and Mario Estrada and Lucinda “Cinda” Krouk for District 2 commissioner.
  • In Treasure Island, besides the mayor’s race, Bennett Davis, Christine Gruschke and Deborah Toth are running for District 1 commissioner.

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com.