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Belleair residents object to bluff restoration project

BELLEAIR — Nancy Hartshorne grew alarmed when she first heard of a plan to reconstitute a bluff near her home in Belleair.

"It's filled with marsh rabbits and all sorts of little creatures live down here," said Hartshorne, 70, who moved here from Connecticut with her husband, Daniel, in 2001.

"We loved this area for walking and we would walk it periodically. I think it's such a beautiful, natural-looking area."

While Hartshorne and other residents worry that vegetation, some 100-year-old trees and wildlife will be casualties of the project, Belleair officials say it's needed to deal with erosion that's done significant damage in the last 20 years.

The bluff, which is about a half-mile long, runs from just south of the Belleair Country Club to Manatee Road, according to estimates on Google Maps.

The bluff shoreline restoration project, Belleair Town Manager Micah Maxwell said, will cost about $5 million and be done in two phases: the first to restore the bluff and the second to make improvements to Bayview Drive and Manatee Road and a portion of Osceola Road. Each phase will take about a year, he said.

"If we don't do something about it now, we're going to lose the road and it will continue towards the homes," he said, referring to Bayview Drive, which runs parallel to the bluff.

The town began looking into the bluff restoration about six years ago, when it found Bayview Drive in danger, Maxwell said. In some areas, he said, the bluff's erosion is within 10 feet of the street.

To reconstitute the bluff, Maxwell, said a gabion wall (a basket or cage filled with earth or rocks and used especially in building a support or abutment) will be built along the coast. Fill dirt will be placed between the existing bank and the wall, which will keep erosion from occurring, he said.

"Basically, everything that's on the down slope of that bank is going to be removed," he said.

Cardno TBE, the town's engineering firm, is examining which plants will be removed from the bluff and which ones will be replanted, Maxwell said.

"We don't know everything that's coming out as far as trees and plants, so we're not sure how they will be affected yet," he said.

Some Belleair residents were alarmed recently when they noticed white marks spray-painted on the bottom of several trees by the bluff. The marks indicate those trees will be saved, Maxwell said.

Hartshorne, who lives on Osceola Road, would like to see as many trees saved as possible.

"I just feel like they're ripping out the heart and soul of Belleair when they take down these trees," she said. "I know they can try to save these things — some of them."

Maxwell said the town contacted residents of Bayview Drive, Manatee Road and Osceola Road several months ago and held a preconstruction meeting in February to inform residents about the plan.

Hartshorne and Debbie Rieckmann, who lives two blocks from the bluff, didn't find out about the plan until recently. Like Hartshorne, Rieckmann likes the scenery of the bluff.

"We can come down here, walk the dog, sit on the benches, look out to the sea, look at the wildlife," she said. "It's gorgeous."

They were among residents who raised concerns with Belleair Town Commissioner Michael Wilkinson, who then organized a walk-through earlier this week. Wilkinson, Maxwell and a half-dozen residents met Monday morning to walk through the bluff and discuss concerns about the plan.

Maxwell arranged a followup meeting Thursday night for concerned residents to look at the plan in depth.

"All sides can agree that something has to happen with the bluff's erosion," Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson added that the fate of the bluff's wildlife habitat is a concern for everyone.

Belleair already has received permit approval from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (more commonly known as Swiftmud), the state Department of Environmental Protection and Pinellas County. Just this week, Belleair received approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Belleair Town Commission is expected to vote on the matter in late September or early October. If approved, Maxwell is not sure when the restoration work will begin.

"A lot of things will be determined in detail within a month or so," he said. "I can't tell you for sure."

Maxwell said the town would like to reconstitute the bluff in sections, but a few more meetings will be held to discuss those details.

What upsets Hartshorne most is the potential loss of the bluff's wildlife habitat and its trees. She wonders if they will ever come back.

"I just don't like the idea that people think that we're the only species that matters or that our interests always comes first," she said. "We share this world with a whole lot of other beings."

Four-legged ones. Winged ones. Crawly ones.

"They're the senior citizens of Belleair as far as I'm concerned," she said.

Belleair residents object to bluff restoration project 08/05/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 5, 2010 8:31pm]
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