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Congressman’s death tops local headlines in 2013
Editor’s note: Here are Tampa Bay Newspapers’ top stories of the year for the papers’ circulation area based on input from staff. TBN’s editors and correspondents wrote the stories.
Article published on Monday, Dec. 30, 2013
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Photo by TERRE PORTER
Pallbearers carry Rep. C.W. Bill Young’s flag-draped casket into the First Baptist Church Indian Rocks in Largo Oct. 24 where around 1,500 people gathered to pay their respects and say goodbye.
Longtime Congressman Bill Young dies

A crowd estimated at about 1,500 paid their respects to U.S. Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young at his funeral service Oct. 24 at the First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo.

Young, 82, of Indian Shores, the nation’s longest serving Republican member of the U.S. Congress died Oct. 18, 2013. Young served more than 50 years in public office – 10 in the Florida State Senate and 42 in the United States Congress.

Speaker of the U.S. House John Boehner told Young’s family, “Your loss is our loss,” adding that Young loved God, his family, his country and the House Appropriations Committee – in that order.”

He said even though they knew they shouldn’t have, fellow House members had griped when Young announced he would not run for re-election.

“Bill Young wasn’t just a leading man in the House, he was the House,” he said, as he took a moment to dry his eyes and regain his composure.

Young died from complications related to a chronic injury, according to a statement from his family. He was buried in Bay Pines Cemetery in a private service.

Three Republican candidates qualified to run in the Jan. 14 special primary election to fill the position left vacant when Young died. Candidates include Mark Bircher of Seminole, David Jolly of Indian Rocks Beach and state Rep. Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena. Alex Sink, who lists her address as a P.O. Box in Clearwater, is the sole candidate for the Democrats.

Lucas Overby of Clearwater, who represents the Libertarian Party of Florida, also qualified by paying a fee. Michael S. Levinson of St. Petersburg qualified as a write-in candidate.

Flood insurance rates increase dramatically

Residents, government officials and community leaders spoke out in numerous meetings in opposition to skyrocketing rate increases for consumers in the national flood insurance program.

The rate increases stem from the implementation of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Act of 2012.

Returning residents who own a second home in Pinellas are probably already aware of the rate changes, as premiums increased Jan. 1 on non-primary residences. A second round of increases on Oct. 1 affected a larger group of people, despite a concerted effort to get Congress to enact a delay.

Pinellas County has more subsidized NFIP policies than any other county in the United States. Many property owners are worried they won’t be able to pay their mortgage due to increased insurance premiums. Real estate buys in areas where flood insurance is required is at a standstill, as new owners are unable or unwilling to pay the increased rates. The real estate market is reeling with reports of canceled contracts coming in from all over the county. Property Appraiser Pam Dubov has said property values could decline.

Congress passed BW-12 in an attempt to reduce the debt of the NFIP after claims outpaced revenue following Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ike, Tropical Storm Debby and super-storm Sandy. BW-12 affects all the major components of the FEMA administered program, including insurance rates, flood maps, grant programs and flood plain management plans.

Efforts continue among county and state officials and in Congress to delay increases.

Dunedin sinkhole takes two homes

DUNEDIN – A sinkhole that caused the loss of two homes in a subdivision off Pinehurst Road continued to expand Nov. 14, but nobody was hurt.

The sinkhole, which was estimated at 96 feet wide and 56 feet deep, formed off Robmar Road, leading to the evacuation of seven homes, four on Robmar Road and three on Mary Jane Lane.

The two homes at 1100 Robmar and 1112 Robmar Road have been removed from the properties and the sinkhole has been filled by the city of Dunedin. Neighboring residents that were evacuated were allowed back into their homes as of Nov. 25 at noon. The sinkhole appears to be stable with no further cracks reported.

About 5,000 cubic yards of dirt were used to fill the hole. About 111 tons (460 cubic yards) of structural debris and contents were trucked from the site and disposed of at Angelos Aggregate.

State and local officials celebrate banner year for tourism

Pinellas County bed tax collections topped $31 million during fiscal year 2013 – the highest in the county’s history.

The Pinellas County Tax Collector’s Office reported Nov. 5 that over a three-year period, 2011 to 2013, bed tax collections have increased, 7.7 percent in 2011, 12.3 percent in 2012 and another 8 percent in 2013.

According to D.T. Minich, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater executive director, reaching the $30 million level is a “significant milestone.” Collecting $30,000 in bed tax allows Pinellas to meet the state’s criteria of a high impact tourism county. Local officials could add an additional penny to its bed tax, an increase from 5 cents to 6 cents.

Bed tax collections pay for tourism marketing, beach restoration, bonds on area sport stadiums and other tourism-related initiatives under the direction of the county’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. Fifty-three percent of the tax goes to marketing and operations, 20 percent to debt service, 16 percent to reserves, 9 percent to beach nourishment and 2 percent pays for the Tax Collector’s services.

Minich attributes marketing efforts by Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county’s destination marketing organization, for the record year.

"This is a result of aggressive marketing and very targeted messaging," Minich said. "A lot has changed during the past several years, including our marketing approach. We're not relying on print as much, which gives us the ability to better target online within our feeder markets."

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater revealed its marketing plan for 2014 on Nov. 13.

Belleview Biltmore likely to be demolished

BELLEAIR – The fate of the historic Belleview Biltmore Hotel is all but sealed. It appears the only thing that could save it from demolition is what Mayor Gary Katica described at a recent Commission meeting; “a guardian angel who comes from above with $150 million.”

Ed Armstrong, the Clearwater attorney who represents Daniel Ades, one of the brothers who own the hotel, said in November they are ready to move toward demolishing the hotel and building townhouses on the site. He said the recent discussion by the Belleair Commission on creating a new zoning designation is the first step in that direction.

Katica says he is like most people who hate to see the hotel go, but he said it is something that likely has to happen.

“I feel like I have lived with that hotel my entire life,” he said. “My mother would bring me there in a stroller when we lived here in 1936. I’ve married people there as a justice of the peace. We’ve walked it, we’ve taken our grandkids there; this is not an easy thing, not easy at all.”

Katica said he and Maxwell will be meeting the people who live in the RPD and on Belleview Island to hear what it is they would like on the site of the hotel. He said it is important their views be heard.

The Belleview Biltmore Hotel, located at 25 Belleview Blvd., was built in 1896 and opened Jan. 15, 1897.

CMA can continue plans for new aquarium

About 25 percent of 67,653 registered voters answered the city of Clearwater’s referendum question to allow the city to lease city hall property and adjacent city property to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. And those voters said yes by nearly 55 percent. Of the 17,183 votes cast, 9,429 said yes and 7,754 said no.

The election was held Nov. 7. Shortly after all 40 precincts had reported, CMA announced on its Facebook page that “the citizens of Clearwater have voted yes to building Winter a new home and expanding our presence downtown. Stay tuned for updates on our future progress and thank you to all of our supporters.”

CMA needs a new location to accommodate an expected influx of visitors. Numbers have gone up dramatically since the release of “A Dolphin Tale,” in 2012. Now, a sequel is being filmed, “Dolphin Tale 2,” and CMA officials estimate even bigger numbers in the future.

CMA plans to build a new $160 million aquarium and move its attractions, including “A Dolphin Tale” star, Winter, and Hope, her dolphin co-star in the sequel, to the new facility while continuing to operate its rescue and rehabilitation operations from the current facility on Island Estates.

Proponents of the plan cited the cost of the project as one reason to say no, as well as the potential value of the city’s waterfront property where the aquarium will be built. Others say the area isn’t big enough for two aquariums and that the local attraction would have to compete with the Tampa Aquarium. Some don’t believe the movie can continue to attract large numbers of visitors over the long term.

CMA plans to pay the city $7.5 million for construction of a new city hall, and it will pay to demolish the current city hall and build the new aquarium. The city will retain ownership of the land and grant a 60-year lease to the CMA to operate the aquarium. The $7.5 million pay back will come from a share with the city of 50 cents for each admission to the new aquarium.

Tropical storm spawns Gulfport tornado

The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season got off to a quick start. Tropical Storm Andrea formed the evening of June 5 in the east-central Gulf of Mexico.

It made landfall in Dixie County about 10 miles south of Steinhatchee about 5:40 p.m. June 6. At the time of landfall, maximum sustained winds were 65 mph.

Conditions were improving around Pinellas County that Thursday afternoon. Reports of power outages and some flooding were coming in from different locations. The bulk of the damage was reported from Gulfport where a confirmed tornado touched down about 10 a.m.

The city reported that the waterspout touched down on Shore Boulevard and Clinton Street and moved north on Beach Boulevard South passing the Public Library, Gulfport Senior Center and Clymer Park. City officials said trees, branches and a power line were down. There was structural damage to Yummy’s restaurant on Beach Boulevard.

National Weather Service confirmed the tornado June 7, reporting damage from winds of 60 mph on a path 1.9 miles long and 50 yards wide. The length of time it was on ground was two minutes. Twelve homes had damage to fascia, shingles, awnings and fencing.

Rain totals between 1 inch and 5 inches were reported with some of the highest totals coming from Largo.

Dunedin soldier dies in helicopter crash

DUNEDIN – Hundreds of people lined the streets of Dunedin March 25 as a procession bearing the remains of Army Spc. Zach Shannon passed by on its way to Curlew Hills Memory Gardens in Palm Harbor.

Shannon died March 11 in a helicopter crash while on a training mission supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The 39-mile Fallen Hero Escort, led by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, left MacDill Air Force Base Monday morning. Banners and signs honoring his memory greeted the procession as it arrived in his hometown of Dunedin. Residents waved U.S. flags and saluted as the hearse carrying his flag-draped casket slowly passed.

Gov. Rick Scott ordered all national and state flags to be flown at half-staff at the Pinellas County Courthouse, Dunedin City Hall and the Capitol in Tallahassee on March 27 in honor of the 21-year-old helicopter mechanic.

County: Keep the Rays in Pinellas

CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners support the Tampa Bay Rays’ request to explore stadium locations outside the county.

The commission favors doing whatever is best to keep major league baseball in Tampa Bay – even though the preference is to keep the Rays in Pinellas.

Commission Chair Ken Welch invited Rays’ officials to attend the Feb. 29 commission meeting. He said it was time to have an “important conversation for our community and our partners, the Tampa Bay Rays.”

“It was a long endeavor to get baseball in our community,” he said, while recognizing the county’s partnership with the citizens of St. Petersburg and city officials.

Whale necropsy finds severe infection

MADEIRA BEACH – Officials from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the University of Florida and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration performed a necropsy Nov. 1 on a 32-foot sperm whale that beached itself in shallow water off Madeira Beach a day earlier.

The 5-ton, female whale was euthanized Oct. 31 and later towed to a remote spot at Fort De Soto beach where the necropsy took place. The remains were buried nearby.

The whale was discovered shortly after sunrise Oct. 31 along a stretch of beach at 132nd Avenue in Madeira Beach.

Shortly thereafter, the sighting attracted large numbers of curious spectators, media, fire fighters and law enforcement and FWC officials.

FWC officials said the whale was almost dead and severely emaciated. Its tail flipped in the air periodically before University of Florida veterinarians sedated the animal and later injected drugs to euthanize it.

Scientists found signs of a severe infection that they said the whale had for months.

According to an FWC officer, the beached whale was the first along the Pinellas beaches since 2009 when another was discovered slightly north of Thursday’s sighting.
Article published on Monday, Dec. 30, 2013
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