Sand Key Debates Independence Effort
By Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - Last week's meeting of the Sand Key Civic Association (SKCA) saw the first public exchange of opinions on the Islands Independence Initiative's (III) effort to examine the feasibility and benefits of separating Sand Key, Clearwater Beach and Island Estates from the City of Clearwater. The sometimes heated debate pitted four past presidents of SKCA versus several current board members and proponents of the initiative.
The showdown was prompted by a recent targeted mailing from III that asked voters of the city's three island communities, "Would we be better off if we were able to break free from Clearwater?" The mailer further questioned why residents of the three islands, representing about 10-percent of Clearwater's population, pay nearly 40-percent of the city's property taxes.
III criticized the City Council for being unresponsive to zoning issues on Sand Key, failing to "responsibly enforce" short term rental violations on Clearwater Beach, and for refusing to fund the undergrounding of utilities on Island Estates.
The mailer was also an overt solicitation of funds for the organization, incorporated as a 501(c)(4) non-profit; "Please. It's vital that you send a check today," the mailer pled, "It is urgent." The group's website, 3unitedislands.com, duplicates the mailer and fund solicitation.
Joe Calio, Nick Fritsch, Herb McLachlan and Mike Dooley, all past presidents of SKCA, felt a sense of urgency as well, and orchestrated a series of presentations that exposed the value of Sand Key's long partnership with the city, questioned the difficulty of de-annexing and partnering with Clearwater Beach and Island Estates, and encouraged the SKCA board to continue working with the city rather than supporting a "divisive" effort.
Calio, one of the founding members of SKCA, reminded the board of the organization's mission, to make Sand Key a great place to live. "I think we've achieved that goal," he said, citing a list of projects done in cooperation with the city, including the Sand Key Volunteer Beach Patrol, the Sand Key Bay Park, beautification of Gulf Blvd., and the Sand Key Fire Station.
Dooley, a 14-year resident of Sand Key now residing in Seminole, said that passage of a city-wide referendum would be required for the islands to secede, and that "the city would bring out all of its influence and guns to vote that referendum down." According to Dooley, the three islands have only 10.7-percent of the city's registered voters, implying that a referendum would easily be defeated.
"I think it would be in the best interest of Sand Key to continue to work with the Mayor and City Council versus taking some action that would back away from the city," Dooley said. Three of Clearwater's five elected officials live on Sand Key and Clearwater Beach.
McLachlan decried the polarization and ill will that he thought the secession initiative would bring. He also questioned partnering with Clearwater Beach and Island Estates, communities that he said were mostly concerned with code enforcement issues. "We are three distinctly different islands," he said, calling the Sand Key infrastructure "new", versus the other islands' "old and fragile." "I don't want their future costs and new debt obligations," he said.
Fritsch added to Calio's list of Sand Key accomplishments, estimating that the city has invested more than $5-million in infrastructure improvements requested by residents. "The reason we are speaking tonight is that a few people are intent upon tearing down a productive relationship that took two decades to craft with very significant results. Before this group is given any further SKCA funds, I would ask the board to discuss it at a future meeting to determine the will of the residents by a fair, thorough and honest ballot," Fritsch said.
That a substantial amount of money will be required to explore and perhaps initiate the contraction is acknowledged by III, but according to member Jerry Murphy the dollar amount has not yet been determined.
Murphy said this week that he was confident that III will raise enough to cover what he called the Phase I exploration, and that the money will be raised from individuals, not civic associations. SKCA president Jerry Koenig was asked at last week's meeting whether SKCA has committed any funding to III; he answered, "No." Koenig added this week that the SKCA has not been asked for a donation, and that because he had no experience in tax matters, he could not say whether such a donation was even permitted by the SKCA Charter.
While taking no position on the proposed contraction, Koenig questioned why anyone would oppose investigating the feasibility of separating from Clearwater. He called for basing any decisions on fact, not emotions, and for debating the issues at a properly-noticed SKCA meeting when all the facts are obtained.
Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard was in attendance at last week's SKCA meeting, and offered his perspective. "You are talking about a divorce," he said, "so you have to expect that emotions are going to get high." "I think at the end of the day we're going to get an answer that actually puts this issue to bed forever," Hibbard added, "and after that, we'll probably need some counseling because we'll want to come back together again and make things right."
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