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St. Petersburg's City Council reconfirms the Driftwood neighborhood's historic status

The Driftwood neighborhood finally has historic status after a  second St. Petersburg City Council vote.
The Driftwood neighborhood finally has historic status after a second St. Petersburg City Council vote.
Published May 17, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Driftwood, the quirky, tree-lined, waterfront neighborhood off 22nd Avenue S, has been designated a historic district — again.

City Council members reconfirmed their March approval after a lengthy public hearing and nail-biting debate Thursday night. Council chair Charlie Gerdes, who had previously voted for the neighborhood's landmark designation, voted against it this time. Gerdes, who described himself as "usually a champion for preservation," said he felt nauseous about his decision, but was uneasy about legal issues that might arise from the district's balloting process.

He and Council member Ed Montanari were the only ones to vote against the designation. Council member Brandi Gabbard, who had voted to deny the application in March, was not present Thursday.

The debate centered on how balloting within the district was conducted. The city requires approval by 50 percent plus one of a neighborhood's tax parcels before an application can proceed. But there's been an ongoing dispute about whether ballots in Driftwood had been properly time-stamped to verify their timely arrival in city offices. Seven had not been marked with the usual rubber stamp, though city staff pointed to digital evidence that they had arrived on time and had been properly recorded.

During Thursday's discussion, Council members Gina Driscoll and Darden Rice were resolute in their belief that a computer-generated time stamp was as equally acceptable as an old-fashioned rubber stamp.

"Essentially, we have evidence that they were received. I think that's sufficient," Rice said.

Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman wavered in her decision, eventually being convinced by Driscoll's passionate speech on behalf of the area she represents.

But Montanari, who had expressed concern about the issue in March and voted accordingly, stood his ground.

"The code is crystal clear to me," he said, adding that no mention was made of spread sheets or metadata being a substitute for a hand stamp. "I am a stickler for the rules."

Gerdes, a lawyer, said there was a precedent for hand stamping the ballots. "The definition of what a date stamp is, is defined by the practice," he said.

Council members also discussed ballots that had been submitted without any indication of how a property owner meant to vote. City staff have said they contacted residents who had submitted blank ballots to ask that they be completed.

"Receiving ballots and then calling people up doesn't seem right to me," Montanari said.

Driscoll said she thought "it was a nice thing to do."

Thursday's repeat vote was the result of a request for a rehearing by city staff. In submitting the request, Elizabeth Abernethy, director of planning and development services, said it had been prompted by new evidence presented by opponents of the designation.

In a letter to Mayor Rick Kriseman, Tyler Hayden, a lawyer for Driftwood property owners who oppose historic designation, referred to the way ballots had been handled and cited the city code, which he said, requires that they be postmarked or date-stamped.

Opponents filed a suit last fall alleging that the designation process had been rife with "mishandling, misinformation and deceit." The suit was filed 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 resident Laurie Macdonald.

While the vote to give Driftwood landmark status was not unanimous, council members agree that the historic designation process — regularly steeped in rancor — needs to be reviewed.

Thursday, they passed a resolution establishing a six-month moratorium on third-party applications for individual local landmarks, with the exception of those that might be pursued by the city itself. Derek Kilborn, manager in the city's urban planning and historic preservation division, said the moratorium will not affect applications for historic districts.

During the coming months, he said, the council and the Community Planning and Preservation Commission will meet to discuss third-party applications, as well as the city's list of properties considered potentially eligible for historic preservation.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.