Success Stories

Pinellas (FL) REALTORS® Draw the Line on Historical Housing Designations

November 2015

The REALTORS® of Pinellas County, Florida have nothing against Historic Preservation.  As experts in property value and community character, they respect the need to preserve older buildings in the city of St. Petersburg.  But when a proposed ordinance attempted to make it significantly easier for swaths of up to 2,000 houses at a time to be designated as “historic,” they drew the line.  An Issues Mobilization grant from the REALTOR® Party helped them to convince the St. Petersburg City Council that the consent of at least a simple majority of all property owners should be required to issue a historic designation for any given neighborhood.

The real concern was the impact on flood insurance and new development, explains Joe Farrell, Director of Public Affairs of the 6,000-member Pinellas REALTOR® Organization (PRO).  Pinellas County holds more flood insurance policies than anywhere else in the country, and ‘hurricane-hardening’ of homes is a serious necessity.  What’s more, since the last revision of building codes in the 1990s, most older properties do not meet code and require mitigation.  Once an area is labeled ‘historic,’ both the property insurance (which includes flood insurance) and the updating becomes considerably more expensive for property-owners, a concern that extends to prospective development in the region, as well.

Over the last four years, PRO has been active in negotiating all the technical issues of St. Petersburg’s new Historic Designation Ordinance.  The final point, which proposed to lower the threshold of property owner-consent from two-thirds within a neighborhood to a simple majority of the property owners in a neighborhood who turn out to vote, would have allowed historic status to be applied with much too broad a brush.  “In St. Petersburg, if your house meets the requirements, there is nothing to stop you as an individual homeowner from getting it designated ‘historic,'” notes Farrell.  “Our objection was to the inherent unfairness of allowing a handful of homeowners within a neighborhood the ability to create a historic district that would drive up their neighbors’ expenses, and discourage new development.”

PRO launched its opposition to the measure by building a coalition that included the local Chamber of Commerce and a grassroots citizens organization.  Using an Issues Mobilization grant from the REALTOR® Party, it got its message through to the City Council by reaching out to property owners via direct mail pieces and phone calls.  Farrell reports that the coalition was able to document over 1,000 contacts to City Council members, while the opposition mustered only 400.   Ten days prior to the vote, they realized they would win. 

Thanks to a campaign training seminar offered by the Campaign Services division of the National Association of REALTORS®, Farrell knew that it was no time to rest on laurels.  “We were going to win, but the issue wasn’t going away,” he says.  “We knew we’d better compromise, and since public opinion was on our side, we were happy to support one that was slightly in our favor.”  The will of a simple majority of all property-owners within any St. Petersburg neighborhood is now required to designate it ‘historic’. 

But the fight over heavy-handed historic preservation is still not over.  “Even with our compromise, the opposition felt they’d gotten the short end of the stick,” says Farrell.  A critical open seat on the City Council will be filled in the upcoming November election, and PRO is supporting its candidate with an independent expenditure campaign funded by another grant from the REALTOR® Party.  “We believe the grant from NAR will put us over the top,” notes Farrell, who also credits his members with hard work and political engagement.  “They were incredibly happy with the outcome of the issue campaign, and now they’re going door-to-door as volunteers for our candidate, shoulders to the wheel,” he reports, adding, “Public policy never ends!”

To learn more about how the REALTORS® of Pinellas, Florida are protecting property owners from over-reaching historic preservation measures, contact PRO Director of Public Affairs Joe Farrell at 813.731.8194 or jfarrell@tampabayrealtor.com.

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