County moves to restrict annexing of Lealman land
By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- A unanimous County Commission on Tuesday gave annexation opponents a victory: preliminary approval to revise the map and restrict land grabs in Lealman.
If ultimately approved, annexation planning area boundaries will be aligned with the borders of the Lealman Fire District.
Pinellas commissioners also refused to move those same lines so that St. Petersburg could annex four lots along Lealman's southeastern border. The property's owner had asked to be annexed into St. Petersburg to improve police service. St. Petersburg, which already provides water to the property, had promised to install a larger pipeline.
Lealman activists exhaled gratefully when the St. Petersburg request was rejected. When commissioners agreed to move the planning area lines, the neighbors burst into applause.
As they flowed out of the commission chambers, some laughed and said, "It's a win! It's a win!"
"We're very happy," said Lealman fire Chief Rick Graham, who with 33 firefighters from his department dominated the audience with their blue uniforms. Repeated annexations into Lealman have cut into the district's tax base and have placed the department's future in jeopardy.
"The County Commission has done the right thing," Graham said. "They've faced a lot of tough issues. They're going to have a lot of heat from the more aggressive cities, but they have defined their focus to the Lealman area and, as far as Lealman goes, this is the right thing (for) the whole community, not just the fire department. We're grateful. Very, very grateful. I can't express that strongly enough."
Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association that has spearheaded the drive against annexation, was asked if the vote came in time to save Lealman. "It's never been a good time for Lealman and it's never been too late for Lealman," Neri said. "Our position has been from the start that we'll make do with what we have to work with and we'll make it work."
Tuesday's vote was the first step toward a change in the annexation planning lines. The issue must go before the Pinellas Planning Council, which is composed of representatives from cities and other agencies such as the School Board and County Commission. Final approval from the County Commission could take until early July.
Until then, cities can annex into their planning areas in the Lealman community.
Bud Wortendyke, head of Pinellas Park's annexation team, was an observer at Tuesday's meeting. Pinellas Park has several Lealman annexations in the works, he said, but was unable to say how many.
Even if the lines are changed, County Commissioner Bob Stewart wanted it understood that annexations still can happen. The main change will be that cities will have to ask for county permission to do voluntary annexations.
Commissioner Ken Welch, who proposed the line change, said the move also will not prevent annexation by referendum.
"This is a first step," Welch said.
A permanent solution may take a while, he said, but considering the situation in Lealman, some action needed to be taken immediately.
Welch referred to a spate of Pinellas Park annexations, including a horse farm that closed a so-called land bridge between east and west Lealman. When the annexation hit a snag, Pinellas Park officials pushed it through, saying they were worried the county would move the lines.
Welch then asked his colleagues to put the line change on the agenda. He wanted to stop further annexations before Lealman was left with no tax base.
"We have an immediate short-term problem," Welch said Tuesday. "Only the Board of County Commissioners can solve this problem right now. ... Understanding the impact, I think it's incumbent that we do what we can do to (protect) the Lealman Fire District. ... They have no one else they can turn to to speak for them."
The planning lines that were established in a referendum two years ago were "not etched by God," Welch said. They were formed from an "imperfect process" that the commission can tinker with to make better.
"It's a limited, targeted, focused change," Welch said.
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