Proposed boat ramps at Travatine and Honeymoon islands were quashed.
A Ruskin development was defeated twice.
A redevelopment plan was thwarted in St. Pete Beach.
Different towns, different projects, all brought down by the same force.
While it's always hard to fight City Hall, e-mail and the Internet are making it easier. Using tools previously used only in national political campaigns, average people are making a big political splash on local issues.
"Technology gets you the numbers to slam the government upside the head," said Lorraine Margeson, an environmental activist who was at the cyber center of recent opposition to proposed changes at Fort De Soto Park.
Not every issue can be a lightning rod, but when one hits it can be quick, cheap and easier than ever for masses of people to have an impact.
"I don't think local government is used to hearing from lots of people, so it really reverberates," said Darden Rice of the Sierra Club.
Fort De Soto is a prime example.
Pinellas officials spent months planning changes to concessions at the popular county park, but the public didn't notice right away. Suddenly, without so much as a meeting or even a telephone tree, activists using e-mail, online government documents and even the St. Petersburg Times citizen journalism site itsyourtimes.com, created an ad hoc group that inundated county government.
Spurred on by newspaper coverage, the county received nearly 1,000 e-mails in less than two weeks. Parks Director Paul Cozzie said he got 180 in a single day.
"That'll clog up your BlackBerry," Cozzie said. County officials quickly dropped the changes. "We learned that the Internet is a very powerful thing. We've never had a response like that."
County officials complained of misinformation and premature overreaction, but the public outcry was unmistakable and impossible to ignore.
The Fort De Soto issue was presaged by resistance to boat ramps.
"Technology made the world a very small place," said Janet Martin, who organized opposition to a Pinellas boat ramp on Travatine Island. A few days after putting up the savetravatineisland.com Web site, she was getting hundreds of petition signatures and offers of help from all over the Tampa Bay area, and even supportive e-mails from England and Switzerland.
Travatine Island was no longer an option.
A similar effort defeated a plan last year to build a boat ramp on Honeymoon Island, where opponents wanted to preserve mangroves. After sharing information online, activists started showing up in force at county meetings and asking hard questions. The pressure also moved Dunedin to oppose the ramp. Pinellas backed off.
"The politicians didn't know what hit them," said Richard Selleg, who was the hub in a web of 100 electronic Honeymoon Island organizers. "They're facing a new kind of reactionary group. It's like the old pamphleteers. It's a new kind of democracy."
In bucolic Ruskin, disparate people trying to develop a community plan last year faced a developer seeking to build hundreds of homes on the Little Manatee River. After Manatee Bay Associates pulled one plan and offered another, activists started posting documents on a Sierra Club Web site and sharing strategy through online messages.
"We all have jobs and families, so this made it easy for us to participate," said Mariella Smith, a graphic designer and Sierra member who spun out hundreds of e-mails over the Riverton project.
The developer offered the county land in exchange for a rezoning. The plan was approved by every level of staff and advisory board. But faced with 330 letters of opposition and a roomful of protesters, Hillsborough County commissioners killed the plan 4-3.
"Hillsborough is a large county, so it's hard for people to get to meetings, which is why the Internet and e-mail are such great communications tools," said Commissioner Kathy Castor. "We may have recommendations from staff, but there is nothing like hearing from people in the community."
Not every electronic campaign works.
Hillsborough also got thousands of e-mails last year about a ban on gay pride displays. Though most of were opposed, the commissioners didn't change the policy. Castor said the communications had an effect nonetheless, showing officials where not to tread.
From a defeated St. Petersburg Wal-Mart to those resisting a new St. Petersburg shopping center in the Tyrone area to St. Pete Beach activists opposing tall hotels, groups online are finding common cause and strength in numbers.
"People that didn't have a lot of experience with the Internet before do now," said Terry Gannon, a founder of Citizens for Responsible Growth, which opposes St. Pete Beach's redevelopment plans. Gannon's group passes e-mail around its inner circle but also has a Web site explaining its efforts to prospective supporters.
Online tools also are bringing new players into public discourse. Being able to read and respond on one's own schedule opens the playing field for those who can't make public meetings. Recent successes also have a ripple effect. People in Treasure Island asked Margeson's list to coach them in opposing a paved beach walkway; Smith says she is "paying it forward" at the request of groups in Wimauma.
"Technology makes people much more effective than lobbyists," said Rich Cowan, founder of the Organizers Collaborative, a Boston nonprofit that helps activist groups use technology. "When you combine passion and motivation with good tools, you end up with a powerful organization."
Cowan is part of a national movement that has been seeing nonprofit and civic groups like Moveon.org mobilize large numbers with free software. His group shares a huge list of tools and sponsors an annual grass roots technology event. Such electronic activists also are the subject of popular books like Crashing the Gate and An Army of Davids.
"Technology creates the numbers and that creates a perception of power," said Rice of the Sierra Club. "Developers and government officials have to think before they kick over that ant hill."
© 2006 St. Petersburg Times