The city of St. Petersburg is facing yet another legal challenge over historic designation in the iconic Driftwood neighborhood.
St. Pete City Council approved historic designation in May for the neighborhood marked by its winding roads and tree canopy after months of divisive debate over the appropriateness of the designation.
Neighbors opposing the designation have twice filed lawsuits to stop the city from imposing what they see as harsh and unnecessary barriers to maintaining their aging properties
Where previous lawsuits sought to block the city from designating the neighborhood historic, this one seeks to overturn its decision.
Like the previous lawsuits, the latest filed July 10 cites problems with the city’s balloting process in which residents’ votes were “illegally altered” among the myriad reasons why the designation should be overturned,
“The city infringed on the Petitioners’ due process rights and departed from the essential requirements of law,” the lawsuit reads.
The more than 400-page lawsuit contains letters from designation-opposed residents, copies of ballots showing what the lawsuit dubs arbitrary time stamps as well as extensive correspondence between city staff and residents.
Plaintiffs claim the city ignored “obvious conflicts of interest” and called the designation process a “sham” proceeding.
At the center of the alleged conflict lies Peter Belmont, vice president of the historic designation proponent group Preserve the ‘Burg, and his partner Laurie MacDonald. Both are homeowners in the idyllic southeast St. Pete neighborhood.
As in previous lawsuits, the latest claims historic designation requires homeowners to maintain “physically deteriorating coastal properties” in an “as is” condition, which reduces the property’s market value.
The lawsuit contains a letter sent to the city by Elizabeth Schuh on behalf of her father, Daniel Schuh, an elderly homeowner in the neighborhood who reportedly suffers from “cognitive problems.”
Schuh’s daughter claims the city improperly and falsely cited her father’s support for historic designation “and then circulated it to the city of St. Petersburg staff” and her father’s neighbors.
Schuh’s attorney, Matthew Weidner, claims his client secured a buyer for his Driftwood home, but that agreement included “plans to demolish the uninhabitable structure and build a new home on the site.” Weidner claims the buyer would pull out of the deal if the neighborhood was designated historic.
Historic designation has long been a problem for the city. It pits preservationists — hoping to preserve historic significance — against property rights advocates who think homeowners should be free to use their properties as they see fit. It also comes with opposition from some affected residents who worry upgrades to their homes will become more onerous and costly under historic designation as they are required to seek special permission for certain changes.
The contentious nature became clear in 2017 when historic preservationists through Preserve the ‘Burg entered into what became a tough battle to make local historic designation easier for neighborhoods to achieve.
The group mostly won the battle. The voter threshold for designation was slashed from requiring a two-thirds vote to just 50 percent plus one, a benchmark City Council agreed by a majority vote had been met in the Driftwood designation process.
Only City Council members Ed Montanari and Charlie Gerdes voted against designation. City Council member Brandi Gabbard who voted against designation in March was absent for the final May vote.