Independence Initiative Eyes Next Step
Group Foresees a new City of Clearwater Beach
By Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - Earlier this year, a group consisting of residents of Sand Key, Clearwater Beach and Island Estates formed the Islands Independence Initiative (III) for the purpose of answering the question, "Is it legally possible and economically feasible to de-annex from the City of Clearwater and incorporate the three islands into the City of Clearwater Beach?"
According to a mailer recently issued by III, the first half of that question has been answered. "We are pleased to share that it is legally possible for the three islands to de-annex from the City of Clearwater and incorporate the City of Clearwater Beach," they wrote.
The group had considered two legal approaches, the first being an action by the Clearwater City Council to de-annex the three islands, perhaps requiring a city-wide referendum.
But, claiming that the three island communities pay 40-percent of the city's property taxes while representing only 10-percent of its population, III thought that neither the City Council nor the other 90-percent of the city's residents would willingly surrender their waterfront cash cow.
With the assistance of Attorney Ed Armstrong, III found another approach; "The process does not require the approval of the Clearwater City Council. A Special Act may be presented to the State Legislature seeking their approval. This requires sponsorship by the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation that is comprised of the state house of representatives and state senators whose districts include the three islands," they wrote.
III is now mounting Phase 2 of their effort to separate from the city. They have been advised by members of the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation to conduct an economic feasibility study of the proposed separation that would consider both the potential cost savings to island residents of incorporating the City of Clearwater Beach and the economic impact to the surviving, but shrunken, City of Clearwater.
While the group has found a consultant capable of evaluating the economic impact of separation, the study itself is not inexpensive.
III's recent mailing asks for a $155 contribution from each of the islands' roughly 9000 households. It further sets a fund raising target of $30,000 from each of the three island communities; any island community not meeting that objective would not receive the study and be left out of the de-annexation effort.
State of Florida Representative Jim Frishe, in whose district the three island communities lie, has an open mind about the Independence Initiative, neither favoring nor opposing it. Asked what it would take for him to sponsor the Special Act that would create the City of Clearwater Beach, Firshe said, "Obviously, they're going to have to have all their ducks in a row in terms of forming a city, all the financials and the political support from the community. That's a fairly steep bar they have to reach just for starters."
"Then they've got the political issues in terms of dealing with the City of Clearwater on the infrastructure costs that have been incurred and dividing up the long term debt. There's a whole string of things that have to be ironed out with the city before a Special Act is appropriate," Frishe added.
"There's undoubtedly going to have to be some form of referendum," Frishe said of his need to be assured of community support for the new city. "If it's 50/50, then the group hasn't done their job. I'm going to want to see overwhelming support for it."
III is kicking-off its grass roots effort this week with a series of community meetings. They met with a small group of Island Estates residents on Tuesday night with a favorable outcome; "Sounds like you're going in the right direction; I'm impressed," said one of the attendees. The rest seemed in agreement, a majority of them contributing the requested $155 for the economic feasibility study.
A meeting on Sand Key was held on Wednesday night, with the Clearwater Beach session scheduled at 7pm tonight at Chapel by the Sea.
In addition to soliciting financial support, the meetings are being used by III to recruit more volunteers to spread the word in their communities. "The work will be done talking to your neighbors over the fence," said JoEllen Farnham, one of III's founders.
For III to succeed, they will have to overcome the skepticism voiced this week by a local businesswoman. She "threw III's mailer in the recycle bin", thinking that the effort would never succeed. "But it would be nice," she said of the possibility of someday living in the City of Clearwater Beach.
III intends to start the economic feasibility study in early November, and have it completed by January 1. If the outcome is positive, III will ask the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation to support the passage of the Special Act during the 2011 Legislative session.
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