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Pinellas Park vote cuts Lealman in half

The move by Pinellas Park dims any hopes of incorporation by Lealman residents, who have seen their tax base eroded by repeated annexations.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

PINELLAS PARK -- Dreams of joining east and west Lealman to create a large city are on life support. Pinellas Park Council members on Thursday cut off a land bridge that linked the two unincorporated areas when they annexed a horse farm.

In exchange for the annexation, the city has waived certain fees and promised a developer zoning changes that will allow a 140-unit apartment complex and a subdivision of 16 upscale homes.

The city's latest property acquisition has raised state constitutional questions, however, that could land the city in court.

County attorneys have questioned the way the city calculated the number of homes and apartments that could be built on the property. Pinellas Park included the acreage of adjacent city-owned land to reach its figures.

Pinellas Park attorneys say the city is on firm legal ground.

Most of the immediate reaction to Council's unanimous decision was emotionally charged.

Equestrians who board their horses and take lessons at Millbrooke Station Stables, 5400 62nd Ave. N, were distraught at the prospect of having to find new places to keep their animals, an increasingly difficult task in Pinellas County.

Neighbors reiterated their concerns about the development's impact on drainage, traffic and property values.

A Lealman leader expressed a sense of helplessness.

"Gee, how predictable. It's a done deal. It's up to the county. If the county doesn't stop them, they're going to eat up everything," said Ray Neri, president of the Lealman Community Association, which is spearheading the pursuit of cityhood. "They're going to get in there and grab as much of it as they can."

Repeated annexations have cost Lealman its tax base and forced the unincorporated residents left behind to pay more for fire service, Neri said. Pinellas Park's land grab also impedes a feasibility study to set boundaries and see if cityhood makes sense.

"Our issue is that nobody wants to give Lealman an opportunity to exercise its self-determination," Neri said, and that lack of cooperation is illustrated by the lengths Pinellas Park will go to persuade people to annex into the city.

To annex the Millbrooke property, the Pinellas Park Council agreed to waive $74,100 in development fees. Officials also waived the cost to purchase, install and connect 18 water meters and other equipment to the houses and apartment complex -- an additional $5,870 benefit to developer Roger Broderick.

"In the long run, the return on the taxes and on the franchise fees will eventually offset what we've waived," said Tom Shevlin, the city's assistant community development and zoning director.

With Millbrooke, the money will be made up in less than a year. Officials estimate the 31 acres will bring in $87,441 annually in taxes.

"Quite frankly, I do believe (concessions are) an incentive," Shevlin said. "If we can make it attractive, then they do come in."

Neri wonders how the average Pinellas Park taxpayer feels about the loss of that money: "It's an uncalled-for inducement. When a city pays that money, that money doesn't come from the city, it comes from the people. Everyone seems to forget about that."

Shevlin's explanation "may very well be a legitimate argument," Neri said, "but what could they do with the same money building infrastructure and doing things for people who are already on the rolls as taxpayers?"

Pinellas Park officials tempted the developer with more than money, including adjacent city property to maximize the permissible number of homes and apartments. The deal has caught the eye of county attorneys.

The city owns a 10-acre site that borders the Millbrooke property on the west and north. The land was donated to the city for use as an equestrian center, although Pinellas Park has done nothing yet with the property.

Under the annexation agreement, city officials have agreed to "join" the city land to the Millbrooke land. (The city retains ownership.) The parcel then becomes 41 acres instead of 31 and the developer can build more on the land. The city land will remain vacant save for a horse trail the developer may put there. The buildings will be erected on the Millbrooke property.

The Florida Constitution forbids cities to use their property to benefit private property. Pinellas Park cites the clause when it refuses to clean private ponds using city equipment and employees.

Jim Bennett, a county attorney, questioned Pinellas Park about the arrangement before the annexation was final.

Assistant city attorney Tom Reynolds told Council members not to worry about that issue, though he warned them that he expects the county to sue Pinellas Park.

Pinellas County Administrator Steve Spratt referred questions to Bennett, who did not return a phone message asking for comment.

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