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Rewriting rules to end border skirmishes

With so much conflict over annexation, few would deny the system is broken. A bill is being prepared to try to fix it.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2003

All unincorporated Pinellas property owners could become part of a city under a draft bill in the state Legislature.

At the least, the bill envisions that the county's annexation planning areas would become city property no later than 2008.

At the most, County Administrator Steve Spratt fears that tax-rich communities such as Palm Harbor, East Lake, Tierra Verde and Feather Sound would be incorporated, robbing the county of income to help poorer areas. Spratt also worries that property owners would lose their say-so in annexation decisions and established communities would be split.

The bill is being worked on by a House committee. Another hearing is scheduled this week.

Activists opposed to annexation such as Lealman's Ray Neri already have been beating their war drums: asking folks to write letters opposing the move and planning a trip to Tallahassee to testify against such a plan.

After years of intergovernmental wrestling, few Pinellas residents would deny the annexation system is broken. Pinellas Park sues Largo. Kenneth City sues the county. Cities and special districts use tax money to hire lobbyists to push their annexation interests.

The Legislature asked for ideas on solving annexation problems from such groups as the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties. Ideally, the Legislature wanted to address the need of all the competing players:

Property owners, who must decide whether to annex or be left alone.

The counties, which must fund themselves and protect residents from city encroachment.

The cities' desire to expand and increase their tax bases.

And the need of special taxing districts, such as fire districts, to fund themselves and provide services for their customers.

"These annexation conflicts, conflagrations, somehow have to be dealt with in a more governmental way that tries to balance the needs of all parties rather than being seen as a zero sum game," said Largo City Manager Steve Stanton, who is helping to draft the legislation and has conceived some of the ideas.

But opponents such as Spratt say the bill as currently written favors the cities.

One battle line in the discussion seems to be forming over so-called internal and external enclaves.

The concept of internal enclaves is an old one. They are unincorporated pockets surrounded by one city.

External enclaves, identified as such for the first time in this bill, are the unincorporated areas with two or more municipalities on their borders. Palm Harbor, for instance, is bordered by Clearwater, Dunedin and Tarpon Springs.

Stanton said internal enclaves are clearly visible. Look at a map of Pinellas Park or Largo and you'll see portions that look like Swiss cheese. The holes are the internal enclaves.

According to the draft bill, those neighborhoods would have to become part of the surrounding city by 2008, even if the property owners wanted to remain unincorporated.

The proposal also encourages cities that want to annex those properties earlier than 2008 to sit down and work out a solution with the homeowners, the county and representatives of special districts that might provide services such as fire protection. That agreement might include perks to property owners and concessions to special districts that would allow those bodies to continue providing services and receiving tax money.

Cities would be encouraged to come to the table because a friendly solution would mean they could collect tax money sooner, Stanton said.

"Probably the biggest trump card is (that) the political process is energized," Stanton said. "There's some real advantages in the current proposal for intergovernmental legislation."

Spratt wonders what happens if the property owner doesn't want to annex. "The flashpoints tend to be: Do you force the annexation of internal enclaves or not?" he said.

The annexation of external enclaves is the most offensive to the county and neighbors such as Lealman's Neri.

"Depending on how you interpret that, that could be all of East Lake, all of Palm Harbor, Tierra Verde, Lealman, almost all of the unincorporated area," Spratt said. The county is lobbying against the concept of external enclaves and forced annexation.

Stanton said he suspects that if the bill were adopted as currently written, cities would be able to annex only those areas already set out in their planning zones. Communities set aside as county areas likely would remain immune to annexation. Lealman, for example, would be segmented: a portion in Pinellas Park, some in Kenneth City and the rest in unincorporated Pinellas.

But Stanton said it's unlikely the bill will be adopted as currently written. "It's under active discussion," he said. "No one's claiming ownership of it yet."

Another problem that needs to be resolved is forcing a city to take an area it doesn't want. In Broward, cities are resisting because some areas are so run-down that fixing them up would cost more than municipalities care to invest.

In Pinellas, the Lealman area is depressed and needs help. Seminole and Pinellas Park have annexed into the area, tending to take the big taxpayers: a Target store, car dealerships, a horse farm that will be developed as apartments and upscale houses.

That trend has long concerned Neri, who fears that Lealman will be doomed as a large slum if the county tax base is depleted by annexation, making the area too costly to fix.

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