Clearwater Central Catholic High officials feel pressured when Largo offers to speed up its permitting process on plans for a new parking lot if the school agrees to be annexed.
By LORRI HELFAND
Published July 10, 2003
Clearwater Central Catholic High School staff got more than it bargained for when the school planned to build a $38-million performing arts center.
What started as a construction project turned into an annexation discussion with Largo.
The school, located in unincorporated Pinellas, wanted to build a new parking lot to replace parking lost by building the center. It planned to complete that part of the project before students returned to campus Aug. 11.
But the prospect didn't look promising. The plans needed to be approved by Largo, which provides the school's water and sewer service. And that was an in-depth process that could take more than two months.
But school staff members said city officials made it clear that if they agreed to join the city by annexation, the process would be much quicker.
"If we didn't want to annex, we couldn't get on the agenda until August," said Janet Long, the school's director of development and communications.
But Kevin Bronson, assistant to the city manager, said it was just a friendly offer - not a form of pressure.
"Once that's signed, they're eligible to start receiving the benefits of being in the city," he said. And one of those benefits, he said, would be speeding up the permitting review process.
The county said it is not unusual for Largo's review process to take longer for unincorporated residents who receive sewer or water services from city.
"With the city it takes a lot longer to approve an unincorporated project that doesn't agree to annex," said Jake Stowers Pinellas County Assistant Administrator. "It's common for Largo to do that. They take longer than other cities."
Early this year, the school obtained building permits from the county. In April, Largo's staff asked the school to file plans with the city. Clearwater Central Catholic complied; when the city had questions about those plans, the contractors answered the questions and sent them back to the city by early May.
Two weeks ago, three city staffers stopped by Clearwater Central Catholic with an annexation agreement in hand, Long said.
The staffers told her that the school's request would go before the City Commission on Aug. 5, but the school could start construction much sooner if it agreed to become annexed into Largo in the future, Long said.
At Tuesday's City Commission meeting, City Manager Steve Stanton said he got the impression that the school liked the idea.
"As far as I know they're excited about that prospect," he said.
But Joseph DiVito, the general counsel for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which owns the school, said he advised staff not to sign an agreement for annexation at this time.
As it turns out, the city decided to act more quickly on the request anyway. On July 3, Long said she received a letter that informed her that the school's review would go back on the agenda for July 15. The county is also considering conditional approval of the parking lot construction alone. So, Long said the school should have enough time to build its lot before classes begin.