Rick Baker writes to residents, raising the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport expansion as a possible motivation.
By MICHAEL SANDLER
Published November 16, 2003
FEATHER SOUND - Over the years, the debate in Feather Sound over joining Pinellas County's largest city has often fizzled.
But the city of St. Petersburg may have found just the opportunity to sway public opinion in this upscale suburban community.
In recent months, hundreds of people in Feather Sound have become increasingly angered at Pinellas County's talk of expanding neighboring St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
Mayor Rick Baker referred to this controversy in a letter he mailed to more than 1,700 homeowners in the area earlier this month about the possibility of annexation. He insists he's simply "exploring" the issue, but he did not shy away from the airport debate.
"My intent was for this to be low key," Baker said, to "let people know we would consider it."
Most of the two-page letter spoke to his interest in exploring a "common future." He mentioned the city's lower property tax rate and talked about some of the community needs. He touched on road improvements.
And he broached the airport, citing the hundreds of people who turned out to object to the rezoning of Airco Golf Course. The public golf course sits on airport property and separates Feather Sound from the runway. County officials have proposed turning it into an industrial park.
"Some have suggested that Feather Sound needs a strong voice in representing your interests in issues such as the county's proposed development of Airco into an industrial park," Baker wrote in his Nov. 4 letter.
"St. Petersburg prides itself in the quality of our neighborhoods, and our willingness to vigorously advance, as well as defend, that quality," he added.
Is the mayor about to enter the county's most hotly contested debate of the year?
"One could certainly read it that way," said Commissioner Ken Welch, who represents a district that includes the city of St. Petersburg on the Pinellas County Commission. Welch met with Baker after reading the Nov. 4 letter.
"I said probably not a good idea to include the airport issue," Welch said. "We agreed to disagree."
Welch said that the county already has responded to the community's concerns about the golf course by pulling the rezoning item off its September agenda and postponing it indefinitely. The commission held two public information sessions to listen to those opposed and have hired a financial consultant to study the benefits and risks of expanding the airport.
"We are bending over backward to deal with the issues," Welch said. "If those folks were suddenly incorporated, it wouldn't make a difference. Once you are doing everything you can do, you can't do anything more."
Commissioner John Morroni, who lives in Feather Sound and serves on the taxing district's board, also spoke with Baker this month. He had hoped Baker would wait until after the holidays to begin an annexation campaign.
"I want to be a part of some of these meetings and coffees," Morroni said. "Somebody from the county should be there."
Baker says he's simply responding to inquiries he's received from people who approached him, and that any serious attempt to annex would take place in 2004. He cautions that his letter is simply exploratory and that his staff is busy working numbers to see if annexation would produce financial benefits for the city.
In the meantime, he wants to have coffee with small groups of residents over the next month, discuss community needs and see where they might be able to form an alliance. At least 28 people have responded to his letter - and 26 say they are at least interested in his offer to talk further, the city's staff says.
As for the airport, the mayor wants to be fair with the county. He said several of the people who have contacted him have complained about the airport. He has placed a call to discuss the matter with County Administrator Steve Spratt and wants to discuss the issue further.
But the city represents 250,000 people who live in Pinellas County - more than a quarter of the county's population. St. Petersburg has credibility with the County Commission, Baker said.
"I think they would listen," Baker said. "I will say there are a lot of issues we might not have legal control over. But if we take a position, we can have a pretty strong voice."
As for the county satisfying the people in Feather Sound, Baker begs to differ.
"All I can say is we've had an awful lot of folks in Feather Sound that have contacted us that still have a high level of concern regarding that issue," Baker said. "It sounds to me like it is very much an open issue as to what is going to happen with the Airco golf course."
Spratt is currently working with the Feather Sound taxing district to repair private roads in the community. He's eager to speak with Baker.
"My take is that they are obviously broaching the prospect of annexing with Feather Sound," Spratt said. "I think it ought to be followed up with more discussion about information. There is information that needs to be clarified."
Spratt points out that Baker's promise of lower taxes should include all additional fees St. Petersburg residents pay. With franchise fees for electricity, telephone, cable, water and sewer to consider, Spratt's staff estimates annexation might cost residents hundreds of dollars more each year.
Commissioners are prepared to make their case in Feather Sound.
"The other shoe dropped," Morroni said. "It's finally here. I think this neighborhood can deal with it."