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Community is bone of contention

Residents of unincorporated Feather Sound are courted by Pinellas leaders after the St. Petersburg mayor sends an annexation overture.

By CARRIE JOHNSON and MICHAEL SANDLER
Published December 15, 2003

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ST. PETERSBURG - With the Christmas tree in the corner and platters of brie and Kalamata olives on the coffee table, it seemed like a typical holiday gathering in Feather Sound, an affluent neighborhood in central Pinellas County.

Only two elements were out of place: the 6-foot-7 mayor of St. Petersburg seated on the ottoman and the rumble of jet engines overhead.

While St. Petersburg has considered annexation of Feather Sound in the past, it is now making a concerted effort to gauge neighborhood support, using an unusual and very low-profile approach. Seizing on residents' unhappiness with the potential expansion of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, city officials have arranged a series of kaffeeklatsches.

Which is why Mayor Rick Baker was in the living room of Feather Sound activist Deborah Van Brunt last Monday evening, dressed casually in a green cable-knit sweater and sport coat.

"Most of this part of the process is just about listening," Baker said after the gathering. "We want to find out what their needs are and what their thoughts are."

After years of feeling neglected, Feather Sound residents suddenly find themselves in an enviable position. Like a pair of eager suitors, both St. Petersburg and Pinellas County are attempting to woo this unincorporated community of almost 4,000 people.

But residents are wary. Some say they're having difficulty getting straight answers to basic questions. And it's not clear if anyone can solve their biggest complaint: the airport expansion.

"We're willing to listen to what everyone has to say," said Earl Maize, who has lived in Feather Sound for 22 years. "But right now, we don't have enough information to make a decision one way or the other."

It's easy to see why government officials would fight over this quiet, suburban community. The median home price is $281,250. Almost half of Feather Sound's residents are college graduates, according to 2000 census figures. About 25 percent of households reported an income of between $100,000 and $150,000. Another 16 percent had an income of greater than $200,000.

"To be candid, it would help the city's tax base," said Kevin Dunn, the city's managing director for development coordination.

Annexation of Feather Sound is also desirable from a geographical perspective. In a built-out city where the only current potential for expansion is vertical, the neighborhood would be a valuable addition, Dunn said.

The city is making no secret of its interest. Baker sent a letter to more than 1,700 homeowners in November suggesting the idea of annexation. He discussed the possibility of exploring a "common future" and hinted the city could serve as the community's voice during the airport debate.

The kaffeeklatches followed. Dunn estimated they have held eight in different parts of the community.

But despite these gestures, city officials insist they have not taken a firm position on annexation.

"The mayor's entire approach to this ... is that ultimately a decision will have to be made regarding annexation," Dunn said. "And that decision will have to be reached mutually by the city and the residents."

The overall price of being a St. Petersburg resident is slightly higher than living in the county, although property taxes are lower. The difference lies mostly in fees, such as sanitation and stormwater.

According to the city's calculations, a Feather Sound resident who owns a home worth about $200,000 would pay an extra $257 per year to live in the city. If the home is worth $300,000, the price drops to $210.

But it's not just about cost, Dunn said. The main selling point is representation, something Feather Sound residents have told him they don't now have. They are angered by the county's role in the expansion of the airport.

"There's a sense of frustration that they're not being heard," Dunn said. "They feel they don't have any involvement in what's happening to them."

Hundreds of people from Feather Sound came out to a special meeting at the Radisson in September to voice concerns about the county's $225-million airport expansion proposal.

The proposed master plan, which has yet to be approved, has many homeowners worried about increased noise and traffic. County officials see investing in the airport as a strategy for bringing jobs to Pinellas.

County officials feel they have been responsive to neighborhood concerns about the airport. They've scheduled public meetings, postponed the rezoning of the Airco Golf Course near the runway that they propose changing to an industrial park, and worked with all airport parties - including the airlines, the Coast Guard and the military - on ways to reduce the noise.

The county won't give up Feather Sound without a fight. It has printed 1,000 brochures explaining "What You Get as an Unincorporated Resident." The pamphlet includes a table comparing the costs associated with both governments.

"It's not intended to be a heavy sales pitch," County Administrator Steve Spratt said. "Just general public information."

Spratt said his staff has already met with a group of homeowners and will make themselves available to meet with others, if they desire.

The city's approach has ruffled a few feathers among county leaders. County Commissioner John Morroni, who lives in Feather Sound, asked to be included in the city's meetings but was refused.

"I'm there to get information, too," Morroni said. "I could sit and be a good little, quiet boy. But I think me being kept out is wrong."

Baker asked homeowners hosting the coffee meetings to keep them closed to county personnel and reporters, saying it is necessary so people feel free to speak their minds.

"This is not intended to be a forum for us to debate John Morroni," Baker said.

Annexation is no simple matter. First, the City Council would have to approve an ordinance to hold a referendum. Then a special election must be scheduled for voters to choose whether they want to become part of St. Petersburg.

Between the legal advertisements and notification of voters, the process takes a lot of staff time and taxpayer money. And success is not guaranteed, as illustrated by Seminole's unsuccessful bid to annex five areas in August.

But the city's effort is starting to pay off, at least according to resident Brian Diehl.

"We may get more representation from the city," said Diehl, who has lived in Feather Sound for 14 years. "When you have the largest city in the county behind you, it might make a difference."

Randy Stigleman, who lives near Diehl, said he's more willing to listen to the city's arguments after attending one of the kaffee-klatches. "Baker's not afraid to go against the county," he said. "He's got a good record for that."

[Last modified December 15, 2003, 01:46:24]


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