LITHIA — When Jenna Conti went to another public meeting at FishHawk Ranch on Tuesday night, she again brought her fin.
Conti has a custom-made silicon mermaid tail. Her dream is to swim at the Florida Aquarium, but last week she just planned to swim with the kids at FishHawk Ranch.
She had been in the Aquatic Club pool with her tail once before with the staff's okay, she said, but last week, they told her it violated a policy against swim fins. Weightless in the water and not made of hard plastic, it's not a safety concern, she said.
On Monday night, the FishHawk Community Development District I board voted to keep her out of the pool because of the swim fin policy. She asked the Community Development District II board Tuesday to re-evaluate the rules.
The board suggested options like holding special events with her. Or she could apply to be a vendor, the board said, with a business license and insurance.
Conti said the events calendar was booked until 2014, but board members encouraged her to talk to the Homeowners Association.
"Some of the HOA's most successful events have been those with children," said board chairman Ruth Brown, noting past events for Christmas and Easter. "This would really be a special treat for the community."
A few residents spoke in support of Conti. Bill Sperling, an insurance agent with four children who has lived there for eight years, said he hoped Conti and the board could find middle ground.
"I feel that FishHawk Ranch is a unique community. That's why I live here," Sperling said after the meeting. "The mermaid is also unique. I feel there is a place for her here."
Last week, Conti posted on the FishHawk Area Neighborhood Page on Facebook, inviting families to bring their children to swim with her. The first 100 comments were supportive, she said. But when she got to the pool Wednesday morning, staff said she would not be allowed in with her fin.
At the same time, a text from a friend told her to stay off Facebook, where the idea of a mermaid in the community pool had suddenly become contentious.
Some on Facebook have questioned whether her fin is a safety issue. Others wonder who else they would have to bend the rules for if they bend them for a mermaid.
And some have questioned her motives, and why a woman dressed like a mermaid would want to swim with kids in the first place. Another poster suggested the males who support Conti are "dirty old men."
"I looked at one comment," Conti said. "I didn't look at the rest. I was devastated."
The full-time hair stylist has lived in FishHawk Ridge for two and a half years, but hasn't been a mermaid for very long. She and her 10-year-old son saw the mermaids at the Tampa Bay Renaissance Fair earlier this year.
"I was so absolutely enthralled by what I saw," she said.
About seven years ago, Conti had a brain tumor. She'd lost the use of her legs and had to relearn how to walk. So when she saw the mermaids, she told herself, "It's time to start doing the things you want to do."
After Tuesday's meeting, Conti said she would think about her options, like becoming a vendor or finding another place to swim. She'll charge a fee for private parties, she said, but she doesn't want to charge families to swim with her in public pools.
"To just swim with the kids, it's supposed to be for everybody," she said.
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2453.