CLEARWATER — A local developer is working to build a 42-boat mooring field in the middle of the Mandalay Channel, something never before pulled off in the high-traffic waters around nationally renowned Clearwater Beach.
William Blackwood's proposal would allow boats up to 60 feet long to buoy over 20 acres of submerged lands he owns in the Intracoastal Waterway. With Island Estates condos to the east and the residential north Clearwater Beach to the west, the mooring field would take up much of the waterway bordered by private docks and used daily by boaters.
City and county officials were blindsided by the project because Blackwood started the application process at the top and received a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in June. With the project now in the hands of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the city intends to fight the mooring field and request a public hearing over concerns about navigation dangers, said City Attorney Pam Akin.
The Army Corps is notifying surrounding waterfront property owners they have until Sept. 28 to submit opinions.
Even if Blackwood were to get approval from the Army Corps, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the county, the city expects to squash the project because mooring fields don't exist in city code.
"He would have to submit an application to the city," said assistant planning director Gina Clayton.
"If he filed an application, we would probably reject it because we don't have the authority to approve a use that is not listed."
There is only one mooring field in Pinellas County, near the Vinoy Marina in St. Petersburg. A second has been approved in Gulfport, but hasn't been constructed.
David Walker, Pinellas County environmental program manager, said mooring fields make sense in places where they'd have low impact on navigation, recreation, natural resources and other public uses.
Walker said Blackwood has not applied to the county for the required water and navigation permits.
"It's an unusual project because we don't see a lot of them and it's right smack dab in the middle of the channel," Walker said.
Blackwood, owner of the Cove apartments on Clearwater Beach, discovered his deed included 26 acres of submerged lands when he hired a consultant to assess his property after Hurricane Jeanne took out his apartments' dock in 2004.
He said he sees the mooring field as a tourism and cultural asset.
Because the Mandalay Channel is a no-wake zone, Blackwood, a retired Honeywell engineer, said the mass of parked boats would not be difficult to maneuver. He plans to use two slips on the Cove's dock for dinghies to shuttle visitors to and from the mooring field.
"It's going to enhance boating in the city tremendously, it's a tourism boom," he said. "It could go so far as to accommodate people who cruise the Great Loop, which runs on the East Coast up into Canada."
However, as residents hear murmurs of the project, many are uneasy.
Pat Dowling, who lives on the fifth floor of Bay House condos east of the channel, said neighbors are reluctant to trade their views of open water for a parking lot of boats.
"It's going to destroy all the homes," Dowling said. "I'm looking out my window at water, and now we're going to have noise pollution and a wall of boats."
William Morris, Clearwater's marine and aviation director, said he's concerned about water congestion and accidents for boaters who aren't used to obstacles in the way.
"If you're driving along in the dark and the boats out here don't have the proper lights, somebody can run into an unlit boat," Morris said.
Brad Dunn, captain of Bait House Charters, said the channel is wide enough that he's not worried about navigation, but he doesn't trust all tenants won't illegally dump sewage and waste.
Another complication is a dispute over who owns a 6-acre sliver of submerged lands on the southern end of the site.
Blackwood's deed for the 26 acres overlaps with 6 acres in the channel the city claims to own.
Both deeds trace back more than 80 years to an entity called the Clearwater Island Bridge Co.
Blackwood filed a legal motion in February to claim the 6 acres. If he were to lose the land in question, but secure all necessary permits, Blackwood said his project would go forward — just 6 acres smaller.
"This is a good project, this is a navigable channel," he said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.