Metro week in review
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2003
NEW PORT RICHEY -- Here's a test for optimists and pessimists: Is Pasco County half full of rampant and random development and strip malls, or is it half empty, with environmentally sensitive land worth saving while there is still time?
Such puzzles arose last week in separate news accounts of a turbo-charged construction business, which saw 4,786 home-building permits issued last year, the second highest total in the county's history.
Meanwhile, a task force appointed to study the environment sounded the alarm that environmentally sensitive land in Pasco is being gobbled up too fast to wait any longer to save it.
Low interest rates and reasonable land prices have been both a blessing and a curse to Pasco County, where permit applications jumped 24 percent over 2001.
The Environmental Lands Aquisition Task Force is working on recommendations to present to the County Commission and decided to meet more frequently to get the process moving.
TAMPA -- Since most elected officials bemoan apathetic voters and low turnout, the Pinellas-Pasco public defender is appealing the case of a Pasco man who was convicted of felony charges because he insisted on casting his ballot.
Edwin McGusty's troubles began shortly before the 2000 election when the Pasco County elections office refused to mail him an absentee ballot because he had moved temporarily to Tampa. Even though McGusty, 31, maintained that he planned to return to Pasco, it was too close to election time to register in Hillsborough County.
Denied his absentee ballot, McGusty returned to his home precinct on Election Day and insisted on voting, despite warnings from officials that he would be prosecuted.
Charges were indeed filed, and he was convicted in December.
In a rare move, Public Defender Bob Dillinger took the case before the 2nd District Court of Appeal saying the law is vague. But the state argued that McGusty was warned repeatedly that he had given up his right to vote in Pasco.
McGusty, a technology consultant, said it would be easier to move on and forget about the incident, but "this is about a lot more than these technical questions. This is about a person's right to vote in this country."
CLEARWATER -- A popular weekend party spot off Clearwater Beach was spared attempts to crack down on unruly behavior by pushing boats 150 feet offshore.
The problem is what one resident described as "knucklehead" behavior behind Shephard's resort, where police say fights, theft and sexual highjinks are common complaints.
Though sympathetic, city commissioners worried that pushing boaters out of the shallows into the swift current off Clearwater Pass would be dangerous, especially if drunken partiers decide to swim for it.
"I'm not prepared to have that on my conscience," said Commissioner Frank Hibbard, who instead called for strict enforcement of existing laws.
DUNEDIN -- Denied access to the a Dunedin Public Library meeting room, a Central Florida religious group has filed suit.
The city claims it is the separation of church and state that prompted the policy of barring political and religious groups from using the library facilities.
The Liberty Counsel of Orlando sees the move as discrimination, not protection. Religious groups should have equal access to public buildings, just like secular groups.
City Attorney John Hubbard said the lawsuit was not justified.
"The city still believes in separation of church and state, and that's how we run our city facilities," Hubbard said. "They never even contacted us to discuss it. It just amazes me that there is this level of discourtesy inherent in our society."
Using a Pinellas County program as a model, the state Department of Agriculture will distribute fishy-smelling bait laced with a rabies vaccine to attract raccoons, a main carrier of the disease.
About 500,000 palm-sized pellets will be dropped in Polk, Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and portions of Lake and Sumter counties.
The plan is to create a rabies-free zone in the center of the state.
"We've long been the No. 2 and No. 3 top spots for rabies outbreaks," said Pasco Animal Control manager Denise Hilton, "so we're hoping this will really help us get the problem under control."
-- ST. PETERSBURG -- More manatees were killed by boats in 2002 than in any previous year, scientists at the Florida Marine Research Institute announced. Of the 305 manatees that died, 95 were killed by speeding boats, surpassing the previous record of 82 set in 1999. The deadliest county was Lee County, where 58 manatees died last year.
-- TARPON SPRINGS -- For the first time in 23 years, Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital will look for a new president to replace its retiring leader. Joseph Kiefer is credited for keeping the hospital afloat through many difficult cash-strapped years.
-- NEW PORT RICHEY -- A local woman's fight with Perrier over the fate of Crystal Springs landed her on the pages of People magazine last week. "I kept telling them 'I'm not Bon Jovi, and I'm not the Rolling Stones; you really don't want me,' " said Terri Wolfe, who grew up in Crystal Springs. Wolfe has fought the bottler and still intends to return the area where she once picnicked as a child to the public recreation spot it once was.
-- The city of Largo will honor Martin Luther King Jr. this year with a candlelight vigil on Wednesday, King's birthday. The city had originally put off plans for events to honor King after negotiations with nearby Ridgecrest community fell apart. But commissioners said even a quiet celebration that includes readings from King's speeches is better than none.
-- Riverfront dwellers in Citrus County will be watching the skies next week. After an extremely wet December and a New Year's deluge, the Withlacoochee River could reach flood stage if much more rain falls. The river has already reached flood stage in Hernando County, but Citrus officials are hoping to avoid that fate.