Ruling may rekindle turf wars

Some fear the county and its cities will return to aggression, after a judge says the county can't limit what areas cities annex.

Published September 13, 2006

A judge's decision striking down Pinellas County's attempt to control annexation has ignited fears about a return to the turf wars that raged between cities and the county in the late 1990s.

"It's got the potential to bring us back to a wild, wild west mentality with regard to voluntary annexation," said Ken Welch, head of the Pinellas County Commission.

If Monday's ruling stands, Pinellas Park already has plans to annex 22 properties in the adjacent Lealman area.

"Pandora's box has just been opened," said Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association, which spearheaded the antiannexation drive.

Pinellas Park's eagerness to resume annexations is only one example of the aggressive policies that cities used several years ago to take tax-rich properties from the county. But the competition between some cities for new land sparked long, expensive legal battles.

Circuit Judge Bruce Boyer ruled Monday that the county overstepped its authority in establishing limitations about what areas of the county cities could annex.

The county basically had created boxes around each city that mapped out areas for possible annexation by that city.

After the county created the boxes, known as annexation planning areas, activists in some unincorporated areas, primarily Lealman, sought further protection from the county. The county shrank annexation planning areas around Pinellas Park and Seminole to give Lealman a bigger buffer.

Those two cities and Largo sued the county in 2003, objecting not only to shrinking the planning areas but also to the establishment of the zones.

Largo City Manager Steve Stanton said the cities initially thought that the ordinance would prevent annexation wars but that the county went too far in changing boundary lines to protect Lealman.

Boyer agreed that the county was wrong because it had no authority under state law to create its own method of voluntary annexation. Even if the county had such authority, the change should have been by charter, not ordinance.

"I'm smiling," Pinellas Park City Manager Mike Gustafson said. "We don't win that many. It's kind of neat."

Gustafson said he is waiting to find out if the City Council wants him to go ahead with the 22 voluntary annexations, in light of Boyer's decision.

"I've gotten no direction from council," Gustafson said. "I've got to talk to council one on one to see if (the direction) stands that we don't go into the Lealman area."

The decision sent ripples of horror through the Lealman community, Neri said.

"I'm sure the most aggressive of our annexing cities will take advantage of this to attempt to pillage valuable tax-producing properties from the county," Neri said.

Dave Healey, executive director of the Pinellas Planning Council, a driving force behind establishing the planning areas, had mixed emotions about the elimination of a plan that other counties had viewed as a model.

"To lose all of that is, I think, a real setback. No question about it," Healey said. "We're back to square one with annexation. ... All bets are off at this juncture."

On the other hand, Healey said, "the county is getting what it deserved" for the "ill-conceived, unjustified" decision to shrink the boundaries.

Seminole City Manager Frank Edmunds was out of town, but City Attorney John Elias said matters are far from settled. If the county does appeal, he said, that will raise many issues, including a city's ability to annex a disputed area while the appeal is ongoing.

Times staff writer Lori Helfand contributed to this report.