ST. PETERSBURG – The Sixth Judicial Circuit Court of Pinellas and Pasco counties has overturned the historic status of Driftwood, the quaint neighborhood off Big Bayou shaded by mature trees and cushioned with lush undergrowth.
The Appellate Division ruled in favor of one of several challenges made by three residents fighting the designation. The court said the city of St. Petersburg violated its own ordinance in the process of creating the district.
Mayor Rick Kriseman is aware of the outcome of the court case, spokesman Ben Kirby said, but has not been briefed by the city’s legal staff and the historic preservation team “about possible next steps.” The mayor will have more to say once those decisions are made, Kirby said.
The neighborhood off 22nd Avenue S includes homes designed during the 1930s by local artist Mark Dixon Dodd and architect Archie Parish. The suit against the city and Driftwood resident Laurie Macdonald — who led the effort for the neighborhood’s historic designation — was brought by the late Daniel Schuh and two other Driftwood residents, Michelle Harris and Eduardo Zavala.
The wrangling in the small, once closely-knit neighborhood became public in early 2018, when the former home of the family who built the Gandy Bridge was bought for $1.73 million and threatened with demolition.
Macdonald, who lives in a historic house, said then that her primary motivation for working toward historic designation was because she wanted “to protect and to preserve the character and the feel and the look" of a very special place.
But the neighborhood’s application for historic designation became entangled in a web of accusations, with a handful of opponents filing an initial suit in 2018 that alleged “procedural deficiencies” and a process mired in “mishandling, misinformation and deceit.” There were also claims of “balloting impropriety and ordinance violations.”
The city requires approval by 50 percent plus one of a neighborhood’s tax parcels before an application for local historic designation can proceed. Two separate votes were taken in Driftwood. The first covered 51 parcels. The second, with redrawn boundaries, included 47 parcels.
The City Council approved the designation a year ago. The lawsuit against St. Petersburg and Macdonald was filed last summer and sought a court review of the designation. It also alleged violations of the city code and mishandling of residents’ ballots.
The dispute centered on how balloting within the district was conducted and whether ballots had been properly time-stamped to verify their timely arrival in city offices. Seven had not been marked with the traditional rubber stamp. During a council meeting, city staff pointed to digital evidence that the ballots had arrived on time and had been properly recorded.
On March 16, the court ruled that the city had “departed from the essential requirement of law by violating its code of ordinances.”
Schuh’s daughter, Elizabeth Schuh, said she’s pleased with the news, which came after her father’s death on Dec. 7. “He didn’t know that he had won his last fight in protecting the neighborhood,” she said, adding that her father, once a well-known lawyer, had always been concerned about the neighborhood where he had lived since he was 10 years old. The house he bought in 1974 was in disrepair when the city granted permission for it to be demolished last year. Schuh said she is trying to sell the waterfront property and believes there’s a better chance of doing so now that the impediments of historic preservation have been removed.
“A historic district significantly restricts a homeowners’ constitutionally protected property rights and, therefore, the city of St. Petersburg has a law precluding creation of a new historic district unless a sufficient number of impacted homeowners vote to support the measure,” said lawyer Michael Labbee, who represented Schuh and the other historic designation opponents. “In the case of Driftwood, the required level of support was not properly demonstrated, but City Council created the historic district anyway.”
The neighborhood, long the home to Florida’s poet laureate Peter Meinke and his wife, Jeanne, was the only area in Pinellas County to see armed conflict during the Civil War. The Gandy Home, also known as the Mullet Farm, was built in 1910 by shipbuilder Barney Williams, son of St. Petersburg’s co–founder, Gen. John Constantine Williams. George “Gidge” Gandy Jr., who worked with his father and brother to build the Gandy Bridge, bought the house in 1921 and lived there with his family. It later became the home of his daughter, Helen O’Brien, and her family. She died in 2015. The house was later sold, and it was demolished in 2018.
Peter Belmont, a lawyer and board member of the advocacy group Preserve the ‘Burg, represented Macdonald in the suit. He said he is disappointed by the ruling.
“It should be recognized that the court only ruled upon a narrow issue interpreting the city’s historic preservation ordinance requirements for date stamping ballots delivered to the city,” Belmont said. “The court did not find, nor infer, that Driftwood does not meet the standards for historic district designation. The facts remain that a majority of neighborhood property owners have voted twice to support historic district designation and the vast majority of public comments received by City Council also supported designation and keeping Driftwood special.”