tampabay.com

Activists take a hands-off approach

They seek a bill to keep cities from annexing areas for up to 30 years.

By ANNE LINDBERG
Published March 4, 2007


LEALMAN - Community activists in unincorporated Pinellas have long searched for a way to protect themselves from annexation. Now they think they have an answer.

They're lobbying Pinellas legislators to propose a bill that would essentially prevent cities from annexing certain areas for a set period of time, say 20 or 30 years.

"It's a community protection act," said Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association. "The people in the community could rest assured that they will have their community intact."

Neri is leading a coalition of representatives from Tierra Verde, the unincorporated Seminole area and north Pinellas in the legislative effort. Neri and the others have spoken with at least three legislators in the past couple of weeks: Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, Rep. Richard Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, and Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg.

The protection would work like this:

- Residents who did not want to be annexed would form a formal organization, such as a community association, and define the area they want protected.

- The association would go to the county, which would mail surveys to voters in the area asking whether residents wanted the protection.

- If a "statistically significant" number agreed, a referendum would be held. It would take a 60 percent vote in favor of the protection for it to pass.

- The area would then be protected for a predetermined time. (Neri suggests 20 to 30 years.)

- Two years before the protection ended, another referendum would be held. If voters still wanted the protection, it would be extended.

It's unclear how Pinellas cities would react to the proposal if it's introduced. Representatives from Pinellas Park and Seminole said they could not comment until they had seen a plan.

"This is a project that's in draft form," Neri said. "We really are looking for input from our legislators, our county officials and even city people who want to be reasonable and understand why we act the way we do."

Neri said the sunset clause is an important feature of the proposal. The length would give the county reason to improve and help those areas without fear that they would be gobbled up by the cities.

The cities would know that the situation was not permanent and that they might eventually be able to annex the areas.

And the residents would feel protected from annexation but still have a chance to change their minds as their community changed.

Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell said his initial reaction was that his city's officials would not support the proposal if the protection period was 20 or 30 years. The average house is sold every seven to 10 years, he said, so communities change quickly.

But even if the protection period were shortened, Caddell said he was not sure how Pinellas Park would react. He suggested that the activists are merely a small group of people trying to impose their will on others in unincorporated areas.

That's the beauty of the proposal, Neri countered. With the survey and the vote, the majority would rule so that a small cadre could not control the community.