The Pinellas County Legislative Delegation, consisting of State House members and Senators representing citizens of Pinellas County, met on January 4th to hear requests from their constituents for the upcoming legislative session and to vote on several bills that were requested by local government.
The twelve delegation members supported four of the five Local Bill proposals unanimously, including extending hours for child care, allowing Belleaire Shore city government meeting outside city boundaries, allowing non-profit organizations to sell alcoholic beverages at downtown St Petersburg events, and appointing a task force to make recommendations regarding the Lealman Special Fire Control District.
The fifth Local Bill, however, disrupted the unity of the delegation. The issue was a modification to legislation enacted by the State of Florida in 1925, giving a 1200-foot wide strip of state-owned submerged land for the construction of a bridge and causeway from Clearwater to Clearwater Beach.
The act also gave the city and county authority to fill the submerged land "…to be used for public parks and recreation only…" The act also contained a reverter clause, which said, "…should said property ever cease to be used for public parks and places of recreation only, same shall revert to the State."
The reverter clause became problematic for the City of Clearwater. It was discovered in 2006 that docks planned for the Harbor Watch condominium project at the site of the former Ross Yacht facility on Island Estates infringed on the submerged land given by the state. The city was concerned that the construction of private docks over that submerged land could trigger the reverter clause, returning all the submerged land given in 1925 for the causeway to the State of Florida, including some of the area planned for the proposed downtown docks.
According to Joe Gaynor, a principal in Harbor Watch, the State of Florida has since agreed that the docks planned for his condominium project would not trigger the reverter. But the City of Clearwater remained concerned about its ownership of the submerged land and other potential triggers of the reverter.
The Local Bill requested by the City of Clearwater last week allows the city to authorize use of the submerged land "for public purposes and use by the public… including marinas and docking facilities for use by the public." It also relaxes a limitation by inserting the following clause: "Docks and mooring facilities for multi-family dwellings and single family docks consistent with the laws and rules of the Board of Trustees shall not violate the terms of this act."
During the hearing of Clearwater's Local Bill, Representative Jim Frische, whose district covers the entirety of the land in question, grilled Assistant City Attorney Laura Lipowski; "Your clarification then is: It is a public purpose for the city to permit dockages for private condominiums and private residences along this stretch of waterway."
"I don't know that the 1925 Special Act that we're addressing today was intended to prohibit docks for people to use their riparian rights," Lipowski responsed. "But the grant of this submerged land from the state to the city did, as I understand. Is that correct?" Frische asked. Lipowski answered, "The language is not specific enough."
Three members of the public spoke at the hearing; all were opposed to the Local Bill. Jay Keyes spoke on behalf of the Clearwater Beach Association, whose Board of Directors voted unanimously to oppose the bill. "This bill would allow our causeway, which we feel is one of the most beautiful causeways in the State of Florida, to become a parking lot with docks and we are totally opposed to it as it's written," Keys said.
Anne Garris also spoke in opposition to the bill. "In my opinion, this should be a sanctuary, it should be preserved," she said. "The legislature in 1925 was very emphatic about the fact that this is for the public… A fishing pier is public. A dock where people come and bring their boats and go away is public. Wet storage for private individuals is not a public use," Garris argued. "Please do not do something that's going to destroy the most beautiful part of Clearwater," she pled.
Representative Frishe moved to amend the local bill, striking the clause that would allow the construction docks for multi-family and private residences. The motion failed by a vote of 5-7.
Representative Ed Hooper, a sponsor of the bill, closed the discussion. But before asking his colleagues for their support of the bill, he first took a swipe at one of its opponents, Anne Garris. "You heard some comment from several people, some of those are a group called Save the Bayfront, who oppose everything concerning change, progress, docks, public facilities… They oppose everything every time - they are consistent," he said.
"It gives the city the ability to create, for public use only, some items that our citizens and the citizens of this entire county can and will enjoy. If we violate that, it reverts back to the state, it's just that simple," Hooper said, asking the delegation to vote in favor of the bill.
The submerged land bill was passed by the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation by a vote of 8-4, Senators Fasano, Jones and Justice, and Representatives Heller, Hooper, Long, Nehr and Anderson in favor, with Senator Joyner and Representatives Frishe, Kriseman and Peterman opposed.
Having received the support of the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation, Clearwater's Submerged Land Local Bill will advance to the State Legislature, where it must pass committee hearings before its submission to votes in both the State House of Representatives and Senate.
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