BEACH PARK — The neighborhood's old-timers talk of their canal's better days, when it had water deep enough for sailboats and clear enough for manatees to swim next to them.
These days, the only wildlife Lucie Sweeney sees from the waterfront of her Bay Way Drive home are the vultures devouring dead fish atop the muck that slides into view at low tide.
For years, neighbors throughout the Westshore area have been asking the city to unclog their canals of the gunk carried in by stormwater that runs off streets as far east as Dale Mabry Highway.
Two years ago, city officials started talking about a project that would combine government money with money from residents to dredge the canals, a plan that could stretch into 2010 before any muck is cleared.
But just this summer, Sweeney, 51, launched a project of her own, and got each home on her canal to agree to pay $45,000 to dredge it themselves.
Sweeney didn't want to wait. She has more at stake than just her view.
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Living on the water is usually a great real estate selling point — unless you live on this water, Sweeney says.
Her contractor-husband had a 7-bedroom, 6-bathroom house built next door in 2003. They figured they would turn it around and sell it to pay off their children's college tuition and their own retirement.
But the house, now priced at $2.5-million, has been on the market since 2005. Yes, the economy is in bad shape. So is the real estate market. But Sweeney thinks there's another reason they can't sell that house.
She blames the muck.
She now has two houses on the market — the new one and her residence, also on the canal. The residence has been on the market for half a year and is currently priced at $1.45-million.
Sweeney thinks the homes would sell if the canals were clean. The $45,000 for each house to dredge seemed like a cheaper fix compared to the mortgages and almost $60,000 in combined taxes the family pays each year for the homes they're trying to sell.
She had spent years trying to get all of the neighbors on her canal to agree to pay for a dredge, and said she had to wait for some neighbors — seniors on fixed incomes — to move out.
But this year, neighbors in all 11 homes agreed to chip in. Barbara Hurst was one of them.
When she was looking to buy her home last year, the dirty canal caught her attention. But the real estate agent told her there already was a plan to dredge.
Hurst, 46, said she wouldn't have bought the home if dredging wasn't coming soon. For a year, she and her husband have had to keep their boat somewhere else.
If they tried to dock it on their canal, it would get stuck.
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Giant metal scoopers have spent weeks shoveling black, tar-like muck from Sweeney's canal. Their work should be complete by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, residents of about 300 homes on 12 other area canals are waiting to see what will happen with the slower-moving city project, expected to dredge by 2010.
Now in its design phase, city stormwater officials are expecting to bid the project out early next year. By next spring, homeowners will get a chance to vote on whether their canals will participate.
Sixty percent of homes on a canal need to vote for the dredge for the canal to be included. The city project would dredge 5 feet deep and 20 feet wide into canals at low tide.
City stormwater director Chuck Walter compares the dredge to the government plowing streets for snow, and leaving residents to clear their sidewalks and yards.
Early estimates say residents would have to pay a special tax assessment of $8,000 for that down-the-middle dredge, plus whatever it costs to dredge their own docks, if they elect to do so.
The city will supplement that money with a $1.3-million federal grant and $1-million from the water management district.
Sweeney thinks that even though she and her neighbors paid for their own dredge, the city should pay to keep her canal clear. It's the city's stormwater runoff that's causing the problem, she said.
But Walter says the city will meet its responsibility with the one-time environmental dredge. Keeping the canals navigable is up to the residents, he said. The city doesn't have to keep the canals clear enough for boats.
Walter said that once the city starts a dredging maintenance program — which would happen maybe two years after the dredge — residents will have to pay for it themselves.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.