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Beach officials' anger is as real as the sand

By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


It would be easy to kiss off the beach folks who want to secede from Pinellas County.

Been out in the sun too long?

What, got sand in their suntan lotion?

Before you come up with your own wise-guy remark, hear them out.

In sum, they're mad because they're paying loads of tax money to the county and they see themselves as getting little in return. By one count, the 10 beach communities that make up the Barrier Islands Governmental Council last year paid more than $76-million in taxes.

"What do we get from the county but insulted?" asked Joe Jorgensen, a Madeira Beach real estate agent.

He may sound like he's joking. But he's not. He's mad, and he is not alone.

The secession idea, floated at a recent meeting of the Barrier Islands Governmental Council, had enough juice to prompt a serious discussion among elected officials, homeowners and business people.

And while secession may be a cumbersome legal process -- to the point where it becomes virtually impossible -- political damage is more easily exacted and usually more difficult to repair.

A decade ago, three neighborhoods in western St. Petersburg banded together and tried to secede and join Treasure Island. The movement had a name -- Pro-cede -- a lawyer, and a phalanx of supporters.

"It was doomed from the start," said Rahmiel Zwick, one of the organizers. "No matter what you do, and we went through the whole legal process, you can't win. Once they swallow you up, they are not going to spit you out again unless you're a burden to them."

In the end, Yacht Club Estates and what was then called North Causeway Isles and South Causeway Isles remained with the city, but the damage was done.

Oh yes, Zwick will tell you that a prominent median strip now is landscaped. And a street sweeper comes by a couple of times a year.

But real attention? Real political power? No way. They feel as neglected today as they've ever been and don't think those who have been around for a while have forgotten.

"In this world, it's more or less everyone for themselves," said Zwick.

That's the kind of talk that will make a mayor or county administrator cringe. Or at least it should.

There's a lesson to be learned there. While pragmatic Redington Shores Mayor J.J. Beyrouti concedes the secession movement is born of frustration, the beach towns are not just kids threatening to run away from home.

Nobody, he says, helps beach towns pick up trash from the famous beaches so heavily marketed to tourists.

And there is what has come to be known as "the sand castle incident."

Go ahead, laugh. Get it out of your system.

But the beach folks will tell you it's indicative of how things work. For Super Bowl weekend, county tourism officials paid more than $600,000 for a sand sculpture in Sand Key, while the Gulf Beaches Chamber of Commerce planned their own $20,000 project in Treasure Island.

"Ours was much nicer," Beyrouti said.

The worst part, Beyrouti said, is that tourist tax money collected from beach hotels, among others, was used to pay for it and south beach officials were not in on the planning.

The issues get more substantive. Beyrouti and others are concerned about the future of Gulf Boulevard. Think U.S. 19 for beach towns. It's congested, dangerous to cross, and landscaping frequently is non-existent.

They would like to see more dollars attached to their concerns, not just polite county commissioners showing up at official functions.

"It's one thing to get a handshake and a smile," Beyrouti said. "It's another to have some policy."

Anybody listening out there?

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