Thursday, December 14, 2017
News Roundup

Solution for drainage ditches in Oldsmar bogs down in controversy

OLDSMAR — Some residents of Phoenix Avenue and Shore Boulevard say their neighborhood of high-end homes remains a swamp for days after heavy rains.

"The saturated lawns attract water moccasins," said Rayanne Strauss, a retired teacher who has lived on the 1700 block of Phoenix Avenue for 30 years. The water, she said, "has gotten to be hip-deep."

After Tropical Storm Debby flooded her garage for nearly a week in late June, Strauss called Pinellas County for help, since her neighborhood is in unincorporated West Oldsmar. But little has been done since then, according to both Strauss and county officials.

For about 40 years, the secluded waterfront community at the extreme north end of Old Tampa Bay has attracted Florida transplants to build two- and three-story dream homes.

Strauss, who bought her cabin-like abode in the 1970s, said three ditches, carved around the neighborhood, once effectively drained stormwater into the bay. But in the past decade, two ditches have been clogged with mangroves. One, she said, was destroyed when someone built a house over it.

By November, Strauss was calling the county three times a week, pushing for action.

Kim Tracy, a Pinellas watershed manager, said Strauss' case faces challenges.

"There are a lot of requirements we have to meet, even if it seems as simple as, 'It's a ditch. Just go clean it out,' " Tracy said. "We do our best not to create any more negative impacts on the environment."

The reason for slow progress is threefold:

Mangroves, which line Moccasin Creek behind the homes, are protected by state law, Tracy said. Even trimming the plants requires special planning and permission.

Meanwhile, county employees lack manpower for growing demands: 480 work requests are currently backlogged, Tracy said. The county engineer who would have been working on Strauss' problem resigned mid-project. The new engineer is still undergoing orientation.

And, to complicate matters further, neighborhood residents can't seem to agree on where ditches once were or where new ones should be dug.

"Some people want new ditches and others don't," said Nathan Peterson, 31, who lives next door to Strauss. "I believe that, when a big storm like Debby comes and you're on the water, there's not much we can do about it anyway."

After county workers started cutting a new ditch on Shore Boulevard, a couple of disgruntled residents called to ask for it to be filled in, Tracy said. The new ditch wouldn't help the problem, they argued, and would only look ugly and draw animals.

Engineers returned to cover the ditch on Wednesday morning.

Dave Perrego, who also lives on Phoenix Avenue, wouldn't mind a new ditch but blames the drainage issues on the mangroves creeping into his back yard.

Perrego, 51, bought his two-story home about seven years ago and once docked a boat behind it. Now the waterway is shallow, filled with plants and silt.

"I'm not sure what anyone can do about it," he said. "I just know it's a problem. When it rains, the water has nowhere to go."

County employees will soon reach out to residents to schedule a neighborhood meeting, Tracy said.

"It's rare we have this much controversy over regular maintenance," she said. "We're not going to do anything until people meet, talk and agree on something together."

Danielle Paquette can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4224.

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