By ANNE LINDBERG
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2001
PINELLAS PARK -- Legislators hope a committee will be able to head off a confrontation between residents of the upscale Bayou Club and the district that helps prevent flooding in mid Pinellas County.
They've given the new group six months to resolve a dispute between subdivision residents who want to secede from the Pinellas Park Water Management District and the district's board, which says the homeowners have no right to opt out.
About 200 acres, or 160 homes, in the Bayou Club lie east of the Cross Bayou Canal and inside PPWMD's boundaries. The district levies 3 mills in taxes from those homeowners. A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value.
PPWMD uses that revenue to clean drainage ditches, build canals and in other ways help to prevent flooding within its boundaries.
But representatives of the homeowners say they receive no direct benefit from PPWMD. Bayou Club has its own system that cleans stormwater before it drains into the Cross Bayou Canal and a drainage ditch. The homeowners say they should be allowed to secede from the district and stop paying those taxes.
Last year, they asked Pinellas County's legislative delegation to change the district's boundaries and exclude them.
"We do not receive a benefit, and we certainly do not create a burden," said Bob Crawford, a lawyer who lives in the disputed area and who speaks for many of the homeowners. "It's beyond inequitable."
The Bayou Club, PPWMD officials say, would never have existed if it weren't for actions taken by the district, which cleaned out the ditches near the Cross Bayou Canal, draining that land so it could be developed.
It would be unfair for the Bayou Club to benefit, then leave the district and take its tax money with it, until all drainage within PPWMD boundaries is corrected, district officials said.
Those whose drainage has not yet been fixed, said Richard Fraze, head of the PPWMD board, helped pay for the work that benefited the Bayou Club. Now it's the Bayou Club's turn to help others, he said.
"We improved your area first," Fraze said. "The more people pull out, the harder it is on the people left."
According to Fraze, the Bayou Club continues to benefit because part of the Cross Bayou Canal and the drainage ditch that take the subdivision's water are under PPWMD control.
That benefit, no matter how slight, could have been enough for the Legislature to turn down the subdivision's request to secede, said state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg.
"It's my understanding of the law that, even if you receive an infinitesimal benefit, you must be taxed," Sebesta said.
At least one homeowner conceded that the Bayou Club might find it hard to get out of the district if that is the test.
"Clearly, we're receiving an infinitesimal benefit from the district," Brent Sembler said.
Rather than have the two groups butt heads, Sebesta suggested that a committee -- with a member from the homeowners, PPWMD, the city and the county -- be formed to discuss the issues.
Among the solutions Sebesta suggested the committee study:
Asking the Legislature to pass a special law allowing the PPWMD board to levy differing amounts of taxes to different groups. The Bayou Club could end up paying a lower millage rate.
Trying to find additional funding so all the drainage projects in the district's boundaries could be completed sooner. PPWMD then could be dissolved sooner than expected and the city and/or county could take over maintenance of those projects.
Bayou Club wants out of water district