For one year, county curbs further Lealman annexation
By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- County commissioners agreed Tuesday to protect unincorporated Lealman from land-grabbing cities by expanding annexation boundary lines to coincide with the limits of the Lealman Fire District.
The 6-1 decision was not an unqualified victory for Lealman activists who object to annexations because they decrease the area's fire tax base and rip apart the community. Commissioners agreed to move the lines for one year only.
During that time, representatives from Pinellas Park, Kenneth City and St. Petersburg -- the three cities most affected by the decision -- will meet with neighbors from the county and Lealman area to work out permanent borders for the unincorporated community. If an accord is pending at the end of a year, the fire district lines will continue as the Lealman boundaries until the Commission passes an agreement.
Commissioners also agreed to allow Kenneth City to proceed with 12 pending annexations in the Lealman area. All but one of the 12 are residential properties located south of the town.
The effect of the decision is to generally ban voluntary annexations within the Lealman Fire District for at least one year. Any voluntary annexations would require County Commission approval. Annexations by referendum can still occur.
"It was a compromise," said Commissioner Ken Welch, who had proposed the line move. "I didn't get everything I was hoping for, but it's a start. . . . We're in a better position than we were."
Welch had argued during the meeting to extend the line change for at least five years. He also wanted the change to become permanent should no agreement be reached between the cities, county and Lealman representatives.
Welch reminded other commissioners that Lealman residents see themselves as a community and deserve to be recognized as such. He pointed to the more than 300 signatures on petitions asking that the lines be moved and reminded fellow commissioners of the hundreds of phone calls, e-mails and letters they have received about the issue. The sentiment, he said, was runing about 100-to-1 in favor of moving the lines.
"If we're not going to stand up for these people, maybe they need to be annexed by someone who will," he said.
But he stopped arguing and accepted the year-long limitation when he saw the vote going against him.
"On this issue, I don't think we're going far enough," Welch said. "I know the will of this body. I know how to count votes now, so I'm going to support this even if I don't think it goes far enough."
Lealman Fire Chief Rick Graham said he was thrilled with the decision and praised Welch for his stance.
"I thought it went great," Graham said. "What we're looking for is a long-term solution. I think everyone now is headed in the right direction."
Not everyone gave the decision unqualified praise.
"I was looking for closure today. That was my ultimate hope. We didn't get it," said Ray Neri, president of the Lealman Community Association. The association has spearheaded the drive to change the lines. But the decision, he said, was better than having commissioners turn down the request.
"We're still in the game," Neri said.
Although the main goal of Tuesday's meeting was to decide whether to change the annexation planning lines, commissioners had a lot to say about other related issues.
They unanimously agreed that the county needs to explore the feasibility of a uniform countywide fire service at least for the unincorporated areas. They also agreed that the county should spend the next year figuring out how to better provide services, such as garbage pickup, to the unincorporated area.
"These are the kinds of things that I hope we can look at," commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd said.
Some commissioners also appeared displeased with the Pinellas Planning Council, composed of representatives from the county's 24 cities, the School Board and the commission. The council voted 12-1 last week to recommend that the commission turn down the Lealman request, a vote some saw as a deliberate attempt by the cities to roll over residents of unincorporated Lealman.
The tension between the planning council and the County Commission was especially evident Tuesday as Dave Healey, planning council executive director, urged the commissioners to vote against the line move.
Todd, the commission chair, tried to cut Healey off twice, saying he was taking too much time.
Healey, who implied that some cities might sue the county should the vote go Lealman's way, told commissioners a pro-Lealman decision was neither legal nor moral nor practical. Such a decision, he said, would be to ignore the rights of the cities and would be "punitive" to them.
At one point, Healey said, "I still love you all. I hope you love me."
Welch responded, "Dave, I love you, too. I just want you to know that and I didn't feel the love in that PPC meeting."
Then Welch defended the commission's action and said he "took exception" to the "general tone" of Healey's remarks.
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