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Pasco commissioners seek broader dredging of west Pasco canals

By C.T. Bowen

NEW PORT RICHEY — A plan to dredge a dozen west Pasco canals at an estimated cost of up to $13.5 million drew a near unanimous response Tuesday from three west-side county commissioners: Why isn’t the plan bigger?

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey wondered why the project list, devised by Dewberry Consultants LLC, excluded residential canals near Gulf Harbors and the Bailee’s Bluff neighborhood in Holiday, as well as the Anclote River.

Commissioner Mike Wells said there needed to be a greater focus on inland canals east of U.S. 19 to aid storm-water drainage and prevent future flooding.

Commissioner Jack Mariano called the study a "great first step,’’ but said a canal-by-canal study ultimately should help determine who pays for what when it comes to assigning costs to property owners.

The Dewberry study, publicly vetted for the first time this week, recommended that the county complete 12 individual projects in Sea Pines, Hudson, Sea Ranch, Pleasure Isles, Gulf Harbors, Westport and Driftwood to increase canal depths to 5 feet. With costs spread among the benefiting property owners, the plan could mean new municipal service units charging an annual assessment of $177 for the next 15 years. The seven neighborhoods include nearly 4,900 individual parcels.

The county hired Dewberry last year to begin devising a management plan for the county’s 27 miles of shoreline and the network of canals created by the 1960s-era dredge-and-fill development of Pasco’s coastal neighborhoods. Many of the canals have never been maintained, and years of collected sediment have narrowed the waterways, often making it unsafe for two boats to pass. In other locations, boaters are forced to time their departures and arrivals with the tides to avoid getting stuck in shallow water.

While individual commissioners advocated for a larger scope of work, the projected costs could diminish public enthusiasm.

Michele Laur of the Sea Ranch subdivision said public money would be better spent — and do a better job of increasing property values — if it addressed west Pasco’s flooding issues.

Jack Lamanna of Leisure Beach said he favored the dredge, but was concerned about the expense. His neighborhood once attempted its own maintenance dredge and had a difficult time collecting a one-time assessment of $300 per property owner.

"I fear the push-back,’’ Lamanna told commissioners. The cost estimates from Dewberry "kind of alarmed everybody.’’

The report suggested the county could tap its share of Restore Act money from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The county is scheduled to receive $353,100 annually over 15 years in Restore Act dollars. Other federal grants could offset costs, and ease environmental permit acquisition, if the dredge projects also met specific criteria for so-called beneficial uses, such as creating offshore artificial reefs or building spoil islands for migratory birds, said Cameron Morris, a senior project manager at Dewberry.

"Clearly, the funding is going to be a big issue in how this gets done,’’ said Mariano.

Morris and Curtis Franklin, who coordinates the Restore Act program in Pasco, both assured commissioners that the initial study did not limit how many canals could be dredged. Residential canals at Gulf Harbors and inland canals could be added to the project list, they said.

In answering Starkey, Franklin said the Anclote River dredge is a separate project involving Pasco, Pinellas, the city of Tarpon Springs and the Coast Guard. Bailee’s Bluff was left out of the Dewberry study, he said, because the county already planned improvements there and wanted the consultant to focus on more heavily populated neighborhoods.

One of the next steps is for the county to devise a matrix for ranking the projects, which could include the number of vessels using a canal, documentation of prior maintenance dredging and the presence of underwater vegetation.

Mariano suggested Dewberry also schedule a public meeting to review the study with the boating public.