Once laid back, St. Petersburg’s Driftwood neighborhood boils over historic designation

The City Council will decide whether to grant a request by a majority of Driftwood residents to make their southeast waterfront neighborhood a historic district
Published March 7
Updated March 7

ST. PETERSBURG — Even as their idyllic, wooded neighborhood has been steeped in dissension over the issue of local historic designation, Driftwood residents have continued to hold their very own Fourth of July parade and renewed the tradition of gathering under a canopy of oaks for a Thanksgiving potluck.

Today’s City Council meeting could jeopardize the decades-old neighborliness. Most Driftwood residents want the council to make the enclave off Big Bayou a local landmark. The last time the request was on the agenda, it was forestalled by a surprise lawsuit filed by a few opponents.

This time, Matt Weidner, a lawyer for one of the dissenters, plans to speak. He’s likely to be among dozens who will use their three-minutes to try to sell their side of the issue to council members. Earlier this week, Preserve the ‘Burg, whose mission is “to keep St. Pete special,” fired off one of its “advocacy alerts” asking preservationists to show their support today.

“The neighborhood has historic and cultural significance to our community,” said Peter Belmont, vice president of Preserve the ‘Burg.

Shipbuilder Barney Williams — son of St. Petersburg’s co-founder, Gen. John Constantine Williams — built what became known as both the Gandy Home and the Mullet Farm, in 1910. The house was bought in 1921 by George “Gidge” Gandy Jr., who worked with his father and brother to build the Gandy Bridge. His daughter, Helen O’Brien, and her family later lived there, but the home that was considered a centerpiece of the southeast St. Petersburg neighborhood was sold and demolished last year by its new owners.

City staff is recommending historic designation.

Weidner says the designation will pose a hardship for his client, Daniel Schuh, 80, who wants to sell his waterfront home at 2420 Driftwood Road SE.

“We’ve had multiple contracts, but no one will buy if it is designated historical,” Weidner said. “It’s just outrageous that a person can be trapped in their home, unable to sell it because strangers decide they like the way it looks.”

Schuh has a buyer, but that sale could fall through because of the designation, Weidner said. He added that the house is uninhabitable, and that the prospective buyer wants to demolish it and build something that would be compatible with the neighborhood.

“There are structural problems that make it impossible to fix. The people that argue that it should be saved don’t know the first thing about the house,’’Weidner said. “For them to say that it should be saved is outrageous and for council to listen to them when they know nothing is outrageous.”

According to Weidner, there are other issues.

“(A federal rule) says you cannot put more than 50 percent of the value of the structure into repairing the structure. The estimates that we have to repair it far exceed that,” the lawyer said, adding that breaking the floodplain rules could lead to penalties from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and raise insurance rates for everyone in the city.

Belmont, who is also a lawyer, disagrees.

“One of the advantages of the designation is that if somebody wants to renovate their property, there’s an exemption to FEMA requirements. The cost threshold to elevate a property above a certain elevation does not apply to a historic property,” he said.

If it is indeed beyond repair, the new owner is entitled to a permit to demolish the house, Belmont said.

“The mere fact that you have to ask for permission flies in the face of existing property rights,’’ Weidner said. “There’s absolutely no certainty and no clear guidelines as to what would be deemed appropriate.’’

Driftwood resident Laurie Macdonald said she and other pro-designation residents had offered to meet with Weidner and the buyer at the Schuh home, but they did not show up.

“We thought it could be a really positive meeting,” she said.

“Given the conflicted nature, we decided not to meet,” Weidner said.

Macdonald was named in the suit that postponed last fall’s council decision. The suit by a small group of residents also was filed against the city, Preserve the ‘Burg, its president Emily Elwyn, Belmont and Howard Ferebee Hansen, who helped to prepare the neighborhood’s historic designation application. It alleged that the process has been rife with “mishandling, misinformation and deceit.” Despite the rancor, Macdonald said the community’s laid-back reputation has not been lost.

“There’s a strong foundation of neighborliness in Driftwood and I expect that will continue. It’s definitely a rough spot for us and I think it’s the most controversial thing that has happened since I’ve been here,” said Macdonald, who has been in the neighborhood for 30 years. “I don’t want to make light of people’s strong feelings about the historic district, but I hope that we all believe that the foundation of neighborliness will always continue.”

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