It's the kind of deal that screams "naked land grab."
First, you have three companies with some pretty primo properties, two of them on the waterfront with marinas. The two biggest developers paid a combined $23 million for the properties over the last four years.
And then you have two governments: one that would set limits on what could be built on the sites, and another with less stringent protections.
The property owners, naturally, want to go with the government that will let them develop the most.
That's where the land grab comes in.
The three properties in question — the Tierra Verde Marina, Tierra Verde Resort Marina and 7-Eleven — lie outside of any city limits and under the jurisdiction of Pinellas County's development regulations, which would curtail the scope of development in Tierra Verde.
But developers found there might be an easy way around that problem. Across the azure blue Intracoastal Waterway from Tierra Verde is the city of St. Petersburg. That city's development regulations would allow a more intense use of the two properties and permit higher high-rises than the county regulations would. So the property owners asked St. Pete officials to annex the three properties. In December, the city filed the necessary paperwork.
But few Tierra Verde homeowners around the properties want the annexation and are, in fact, fiercely fighting against it.
These homeowners, who for years have resisted efforts by St. Pete to annex their small community, wonder aloud why St. Pete officials would want to jump across a waterway to slice off a piece of their island? Why would St. Pete allow two developers to increase the amount they can build on their properties when Tierra Verde just completed a planning process with the county that concluded the island should stay pretty much the way it is?
For the tax dollars, of course. St. Pete city officials make no bones about it.
"Every municipality," says St. Petersburg City Councilman James Bennett, "is looking for ways to expand its tax base."
Dave Striebich pulls into the island's 7-Eleven, one of only two gas stations in Tierra Verde. The former California resident has lived in Tierra Verde for four years and is one of the more vocal residents fighting the annexation proposal.
On this morning, wearing a casual Columbia print shirt and holding a cup of coffee, Striebich tries to tour the properties, starting with the Tierra Verde Resort Marina.
The resort used to host community events and concerts by the likes of Guy Lombardo's orchestra, but today its pink façade is fading, the letters on its marquee are drooping, and its doors are shuttered except for the adjacent marina's dockmaster offices.
In 2004, Steven Sembler's Ballast Point Group bought the property, its marina, its high-and-dry boat storage facility and five vacant residential lots for $16 million. Steven is the son of Mel Sembler, the shopping center developer, Republican fundraiser and former U.S. Ambassador to Italy.
None of the three property owners has spoken with the media about their future plans for the sites, nor have they revealed their plans to city or county officials. An employee of Sembler's marina deflected inquiries to the company's corporate counsel, who did not return a call for comment. A call to the other marina, owned by a company that has discussed running a gambling cruise out of the site, elicited this response from an unidentified employee: "The official word is no comment, that's what we've been told." He then hung up.
"There hasn't been much [evidence] that I've seen that [the developers] care about the people of Tierra Verde," Striebich says before a Resort Marina employee asks him and two CL reporters to leave the property. "It's bottom line for developers and bottom line for the city."
He gets no argument over at City Hall about the bottom line.
"[The landowners'] interest is they believe they have better development opportunities in St. Pete," says Gary Jones, a city planner. Though he hasn't seen specific plans, Jones says the Resort Marina owners may want to redevelop the property into a mixed-use project. Jones noted St. Pete has more flexible policies on mixed-use projects than Pinellas County.
And Bennett admits the city has always wanted to add Tierra Verde to its tax rolls.
"I think the long-term desire is to have Feather Sound and Tierra Verde within city limits," Councilman Bennett says. "I think that's been the mayor's plan for some time. And I happen to agree with him."
The last time St. Pete officials talked seriously about annexing Tierra Verde was in 1990, when the city was going through budget problems much like today's.
"Once we have a foothold on this [property], we might have a chance for the rest [of Tierra Verde]," Bennett says, adding it's a tactic the city has tried with Feather Sound. "The city annexed [Feather Sound's] commercial areas, the mayor went in and paved the streets and put in a sign that said, 'Welcome to St. Petersburg.'"
Striebich wants no such sign at the entryway to his neighborhood.
"We're not downtown St. Pete, and we don't want to be downtown St. Pete," he says. "They're not going to bring us any services. They're going to raise our taxes."
Brian Smith is the longtime director of planning for Pinellas County, and you can almost hear the exasperation in his always sunny voice when he talks about the proposed annexation.
"It's a property that you could do a lot of improvements to, and you could do a lot of improvements [under the county's regulations]," Smith says. "We would like to think these discussions are made with the community as a whole in mind. It's too bad it has to be about how much more a developer can get from a jurisdiction."
The city, in fact, seems to have gone out of its way to accommodate the annexation request from the landowners. In December, during a check of the county voter rolls, city planners found at least 17 liveaboard residents who listed the Tierra Verde Resort Marina's address on their voting registration.
That presented a problem. Under state law, cities must hold an election if they want to annex land that somebody calls home. Annexing commercial property doesn't require such a vote.
City officials, reluctant to allow a referendum, gave the information about the 17 boat dwellers to Sembler's company. "We asked the property owner to take care of it," says Jones, the city planner. "At this point, we don't do referendums in the city."
The marina owners then contacted the Supervisor of Elections demanding the voters change their voting addresses to somewhere, anywhere else. At least one voter claims marina owners threatened eviction over the matter. Those Tierra Verde addresses were taken off the rolls, but not before the elections office alerted the Department of Justice about the matter, prompting a voting rights probe that is ongoing, according to published reports. When news of the voter issue hit, city officials decided to make it easy: They refiled their annexation plan and removed from it the submerged lands under the marina. No liveaboard addresses, no voters, no problem. (Jones says the city will look at those submerged lands after the annexation succeeds.)
The city has scheduled public hearings on the annexation plan for Thursday, May 8 and May 15. The whole matter has residents angry not only with the developers but with St. Petersburg's mayor.
"Rick Baker is the prime mover behind it," says Paul Murray, the president of the island's de facto local government, the Tierra Verde Community Association. "Without his support, the city wouldn't be doing this. The people are really mad at him."
The annexation, Murray says, seems a bad way for the public to help out some landowners who paid a lot of money for their land. They "overpaid for these two properties and get a break. It's a greed motivation on their part." Murray hesitates for a second. "Actually, it's greed on both sides."