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St. Pete City Council sort of approves changes to its local historic designation ordinance … at 1:30 a.m.

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete City Council narrowly approved an effort to make historic designation of local neighborhoods just a little bit easier, but not before hours of public comment and deliberation.

Councilmembers approved changing the current threshold to kick off the process to designate a neighborhood a local historic district from 2/3 of all homeowners to 50 percent plus one of all homeowners.

Under the current ordinance those owners who choose not to vote are automatically considered no votes.

Supporters of the ordinance change argue that bar is exceedingly high and that the threshold is nearly impossible to reach. They say many neighborhoods that would qualify for designation contain absentee owners who either live somewhere else or are landlords and may not vote because they just don’t know.

Currently the city has just three neighborhoods with local historic designation – Granada Terrace, Roser Park and Lang’s Bungalow – all of which are very small neighborhoods.

Larger neighborhoods are considered more difficult to meet that bar.

Supporters of the group St. Pete Preservation initially asked for a requirement of 50 percent plus one of only those homeowners who vote. Opponents fired back that could mean a very small percentage of homeowners could kick off a process for an entire neighborhood.

The approved threshold, if applied to the Historic Old Northeast neighborhood, would only require about 300 fewer homeowners to vote affirmatively for designation out of more than 2,000 homeowners.

It’s a far cry from what supporters were asking, but is still a significant decrease from what the current ordinance calls for and came after multiple other compromises failed.

Motions made by Council included a minimum threshold of 30 percent of homeowners responding with a 75 percent affirmative response rate. That motion, which failed, was proposed by Karl Nurse.

Another, proposed by Wengay Newton, asked for a 50 percent plus one response with a 2/3 affirmative vote, also failed.

A motion to require a 2/3 ballot response with a 2/3 yes vote threshold failed.

There was a motion for a 30 percent minimum response rate with 2/3 yes votes. That also failed.

And that’s how the night went.

The motion that ultimately passed wasn’t even the first time the motion had been made. Councilmember Darden Rice changed her original no vote to a yes.

It was the ultimate definition of chaos fueled by more than 75 nods either in favor or opposition to any changes at all and years of asking the same question: Should it be easier for neighborhoods to obtain historic designation?

On the yay side of the argument supporters argued the process wasn’t fair – impossible even. They argued to consider a non-vote the same thing as a no-vote was simply undemocratic. After all, when a person runs for elected office, those who choose not to vote are surely not counted as votes against them.

Those in favor of the status quo argued the process was nothing like an election. It’s hard because property values are at stake, they said.

In all, 54 speakers spoke in favor of loosening restrictions on how to start the designation process. Only 22 spoke against. In fairness, those numbers could be off one or two and some level of reporter error should be factored in. Let’s give it a +/- three just in case. Even still, the speakers in favor far outweighed those against.

“You need to have hurdles, but 66 percent, counting all the no’s as no,” Historic Kenwood activist Bill Heyen trailed off. “As it stands now, a little group of people who don’t care or who are not involved, that little 33 percent by merely not doing anything, can stop this process.”

Supporters argued the opposition was chock full of misinformation. Among the most common arguments were that property values suffer under local historic designation, homeowners’ insurance rates skyrocket, homeowners would have little choice in replacing windows or repainting their homes and that property rights were being assaulted.

Supporters fired back on each and every one. Studies show property values actually rise, argued Old Northeast resident Monica Kile. She also said she spoke to a more than 30-year professional in the insurance industry who said it’s not historic designation that dictates rates, but the age of the home. That argument was echoed several times, including by city staffer Derek Kilborn, who schooled City Council on all things historic preservation.

On windows and painting, City Councilmember Nurse cleared that problem up by striking references to paint color in the ordinance in a motion that was unanimously passed. The window issue will be addressed when staff comes back with a reworked ordinance on September 17.

But the property rights issue remained at the crux of the debate.

“Private property rights is our number one issue,” said Joe Ferrell, head of the Pinellas Realtors Organization backing efforts to squash any changes.

David McKalip, a Tea Party activist staunchly supporting property rights, told Council, “without property rights there is no real freedom.”

And Bob Griendling, one of the opponents who launched a massive opposition effort, asked, “What problem are we trying to solve?”

In the end, it came down to three main opponents on Council – Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton, whose districts include poor neighborhoods where historic designation is argued to be detrimental and expensive, and Bill Dudley, who fought long and hard against letting a minority control the decision for an entire neighborhood.

The rest argued semantics. Over and over. Until 1:30 in the morning.

The vote taken in the wee hours of Friday morning hinges on whether or not Council approves updated guidelines within the ordinance providing clarification on which changes to properties need approval and which don’t.

But that conversation, scheduled for September 17, will be an executive action – meaning it won’t come with public comment.

That does not mean Council won’t be bombarded with emails both in support of and in opposition to a revitalized ordinance. Opponents are likely to continue fighting back and supporters of the original staff recommendation are likely to want continued changes.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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