Lawsuit filed to halt St. Peterburg's Driftwood neighborhood from pursuing historic designation

The lawsuit pits neighbor against neighbor, as some object to the pursuit of historic status
SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Some homeowners in the Driftwood neighborhood in St. Petersburg are trying to get historic status for neighborhood. Others disagree and haved sued to stop it.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Some homeowners in the Driftwood neighborhood in St. Petersburg are trying to get historic status for neighborhood. Others disagree and haved sued to stop it.
Published November 22 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Driftwood, a waterfront enclave of winding, tree-shaded roads and historic pedigree, appeared to be on the verge of joining the city’s growing movement of neighborhoods intent on preserving their unique qualities — until a lawsuit was hurled in its path.

The obstacle appeared mere hours before Driftwood’s application for local historic designation was set to go before the City Council for a final decision on Nov. 15.

Instead, Managing Assistant City Attorney Michael Dema announced that a lawsuit contesting the neighborhood’s application and alleging “procedural deficiencies” had been filed that day. Dema advised the council to postpone all action until the city was able to review the allegations and prepare a defense. But with only three meetings left for the year, it could be January before the matter concerning the southeast neighborhood near 22nd Avenue S appears before the council again.

Council members expressed frustration at the last-minute legal maneuver by lawyers for the small group of opposing Driftwood property owners.

“It is hard not to look at this as an attempt to put a chill on these procedures,” Council member Darden Rice said. “It makes me very angry.”

Council member Amy Foster said she was concerned that the legal challenge was simply a “stalling tactic.”

Agreeing that the timing was bad, Council member Gina Driscoll, whose district includes Driftwood, told her colleagues that they “should welcome the opportunity to address the allegations and discuss our process and why it works the way it does.”

The suit is against the city, Preserve the ‘Burg, the organization’s president, Emily Elwyn, and vice president, Peter Belmont, Howard Ferebee Hansen, who helped to prepare the neighborhood’s application, and longtime Driftwood resident Laurie Macdonald.

“We wish that they had met with us directly to voice their concerns about what they think the adverse impact of a historic district could possibly be,” said Macdonald, one of the residents who worked on the application.

Opponents allege that the process has been rife with “mishandling, misinformation and deceit.”

Before an application for local historic designation can proceed, the city requires approval by 50 percent plus one of a neighborhood’s tax parcels. In Driftwood, case, two separate votes were taken. The first covered 51 parcels. The second, with redrawn boundaries, included 47 parcels.

Claims of “balloting impropriety and ordinance violations” have been made in the suit filed by Daniel Schuh; Peter and Yvonne Pav; Michelle Harris; Eduardo Zavala; 2600 Driftwood Road, LLC; Christopher Keller; Dennis Mancusi; and Mark Brumby. The suit alleges that boundaries were redrawn to exclude and silence opposition from the proposed district’s biggest critics, Timothy and Janna Ranney. The Ranneys bought the neighborhood’s prized historic Gandy House, but demolished it after saying it could not be saved.

The suit claims that the second ballot came only after questions about the legality of the first.

But B.J. Sheffield, who has lived in Driftwood since 1984, disputes that claim and said the city made the district hold a second ballot because the first map didn’t match the area’s legal description.

“I would say this is a bit of a nuisance suit,” Sheffield added. “They are feigning opposition to the whole thing based on the results of the balloting process and procedure without accepting the more than 50 plus one for both ballots.”

Driftwood joins several neighborhoods that have recently sought local historic designation. Before 2017, only four neighborhoods — Roser Park, Granada Terrace and Lang’s Bungalow Court — had that distinction. Six neighborhoods have gained the designation since, including the 700 block of 18th Avenue NE and two sections of Historic Kenwood.

Belmont, who worked with Preserve the ‘Burg to help recent applicants, said the city revised its ordinance in 2015. It lowered the threshold for accepting an application from requiring approval by two-thirds of a neighborhood’s tax parcels to the current 50 percent plus one, he said.

That ordinance change, Belmont said, combined with residents’ concerns about the loss of historic buildings and replacement with homes that are out of character with their neighborhoods, have fueled the increase of applications for landmark status.

In their suit, opponents of historic designation argue that Driftwood is not an “officially defined or recognized neighborhood” and describe the quirky enclave as “an eclectic hodgepodge of various buildings, structures and homes.”

The area has been extolled for its history. Situated off Big Bayou, Driftwood was the only area in Pinellas County to see armed conflict during the Civil War, was the location of the county’s earliest post office and earned a reputation for Prohibition-era bootlegging.

Its eclectic architecture includes homes designed during the 1930s by local artist Mark Dixon Dodd and, until a few months ago, the Gandy Home, also known as the Mullet Farm. The house 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 demolished early this year.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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