1. St. Petersburg

Despite opposition, Driftwood has become St. Petersburg's newest historic district

Driftwood is St. Petersburg’s latest neighborhood to be officially designated historic, though opinions vary both in the neighborhood and on the City Council.  [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Driftwood is St. Petersburg’s latest neighborhood to be officially designated historic, though opinions vary both in the neighborhood and on the City Council. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Mar. 22, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Driftwood, a neighborhood where residents proudly embrace their eccentricities — even once fighting city plans to pave their narrow, winding roads and the power company's intent to trim their towering oaks — has become the city's ninth historic district.

But a dispute over the designation, which pitted neighbor against neighbor, will continue in court, an attorney representing opponents says.

The City Council's 6-2 vote last week granting historic district status followed a lengthy public hearing. Florida's poet laureate and Driftwood resident Peter Meinke offered an ode to the neighborhood where he and his wife, Jeanne, have lived for almost half a century.

Mordecai Walker, a retired educator who will be 95 on July 4 and has served as grand marshal of the neighborhood's very own Independence Day parade, sent his son, Andrew, to read a statement on his behalf.

"I remember how excited I was when I found Driftwood. It was so unique and still is," he said.

Those in opposition also had their say.

"We will continue to fight this injustice," said Eduardo Zavala, who alleged irregularities and "outright city ordinance violations" in the designation process.

Previous coverage: Once laid back, St. Petersburg's Driftwood neighborhood boils over historic designation

Council members Brandi Gabbard and Ed Montanari voted against the district after asking questions about the balloting, which is at the heart of a neighborhood's historic district application.

For other council members, the decision to make the waterfront community a local landmark seemed obvious.

"If you can't protect Driftwood, what can you protect?" Council Member Darden Rice asked about the neighborhood off 22nd Street S that's known for its metal arch entrance and Old Florida landscape.

Resident Kim O'Brien, a descendant of the Gandy family who built the bridge that bears their name, is "delighted" with the outcome.

"It telegraphs the message that the city appreciates the history and natural environment here,' said O'Brien, whose 1910 family home was demolished by new owners last year.

Montanari, who described Driftwood as "a very special jewel of neighborhood," said he was concerned about the way the vote was taken.

Even council members who supported the proposal had questions about the balloting procedures, such as ballots that had not been date-stamped as required.

"Out of all the things that were brought up procedurally — most of which I think is preposterous — this is one that does cause me some concern," managing assistant city attorney Michael Dema said.

"There was some sort of a log-in sheet," but that did not substitute for the ordinance-required, postmarked or date-stamped ballots, Montanari said during an interview.

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''It was sort of a black and white issue. That vote starts the whole process. ... I guess I am a stickler for the rules. We have an ordinance on this with procedures in the ordinance and it just fell short."

There was also a discussion about blank ballots.

"It was troubling to hear city staff admit that they improperly allowed voters to change their ballots after being cast and that staff failed to follow its procedures when tallying votes," said Tyler Hayden, who is representing residents who filed a lawsuit last year alleging improprieties in the neighborhood's historic designation application.

"These issues are bigger than just Driftwood, this calls into question whether a valid voting process even matters when designating historic districts."

Council Member Gina Driscoll, whose district includes Driftwood, is comfortable with her decision.

"There was a lot of information provided with this particular case and the explanation that was given to me and the documentation was adequate for me to feel confident that the process was followed with integrity," she said.

"If there are incomplete ballots, city staff makes every attempt to contact that person and give them the opportunity to correct anything that's missing. Clearly, the person meant to vote, so I think it's a good thing that we follow up and make sure that everyone has the opportunity to do as they intended."

Longtime resident Laurie Macdonald said she feels that both the past and future of Driftwood have been saved by the local landmark vote.

I would like to see us hold a workshop to talk about implementation and also have experts who could answer questions that remain in people's minds" about such issues as flood insurance, she said. "I am really so pleased about the designation, but I am heartsick about those who remain troubled by the decision."

Hayden said his clients' suit is proceeding and will be updated to reflect the council decision.


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