Thursday, May 24, 2018
News Roundup

Blame game ramps up over Sponge Docks boardwalk

TARPON SPRINGS — People in this city are still fighting over a boardwalk that's not even going to be built. And the fight may have claimed the job of a longtime city official.

The battle is over a boardwalk that was going to be major part of a $1.3 million plan to enhance and beautify the Sponge Docks tourist district. City officials recently cut the boardwalk out of the plan.

At issue is a question that will probably never be fully answered: Would federal authorities have allowed Tarpon Springs to build a boardwalk along the Sponge Docks seawall, on the edge of a relatively narrow portion of the Anclote River?

Critics contend that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wouldn't have permitted it because the boardwalk would have made it too difficult for boats to navigate the river. A boardwalk also could have interfered with dredging the river in the future, they say. Opponents are outraged that the city spent nearly $350,000 on designs and engineering on what they call a reckless plan.

However, the professionals whom the city hired to run the project strongly pushed back at a City Commission meeting Tuesday night. They said that in early reviews, the corps of engineers never indicated that a Sponge Docks boardwalk would be a problem.

They made a last-ditch effort to get the city to pursue the boardwalk, but Tarpon commissioners said no, which should finally end the fight.

"We were on the 5-yard line ready to punch it in," said Dennis Syrja, a civil engineering manager with URS, the consulting firm that had been doing the marine permitting work. "We were flabbergasted as to why someone would deem this project unpermittable."

The architect, Ed Hoffman, also thought the boardwalk would have been permitted because it would not have been a navigation hazard. "I think the Army corps thought it was a reasonable thing to do," he said.

The corps will not publicly confirm any of this. Corps officials say they were in the early stages of reviewing the case before the city dropped the idea.

The boardwalk's critics aren't backing down at all.

Costa Vatikiotis, a former Tarpon Springs city manager and a retired engineer, wrote a strongly worded letter to the city, asserting that high-level city staffers should have known there would be problems with the boardwalk.

"I believe the proposed dock projects were poorly thought out and badly managed, and as stated, serious questions still remain," Vatikiotis wrote. "One-third of a million dollars was spent on this project with very little, if anything, to show for it."

Vatikiotis questioned the truthfulness of permit applications that the city filed with the corps of engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection. He also questioned why the city's development services director, Joseph DiPasqua, signed off on the applications.

City Manager Mark LeCouris informed city commissioners just before Tuesday's meeting that DiPasqua had been placed on administrative leave and would be leaving the staff.

"We are in the process of discussing his resignation from the city of Tarpon Springs and severance terms," LeCouris wrote in an email to commissioners. "I hope to have resolution of this matter by the end of the week."

DiPasqua has been with the city since at least the mid 1990s, when he was the director of Tarpon's building department.

In an interview, LeCouris wouldn't go into detail about DiPasqua's departure. But he said it wasn't just one thing that led to it.

DiPasqua couldn't be reached by the Times.

At Tuesday night's city meeting, the two sides engaged in a highly technical debate over whether various federal standards and easements and setbacks would have applied to a Sponge Docks boardwalk.

To city commissioners, it hardly mattered anymore.

"To abandon this project is probably the right thing to do," said Mayor David Archie. "Not from a perspective of 'This would not have been a good project' but because, in the end, it just became so controversial."

The city is eliminating the controversial parts of the plan — a boardwalk and amphitheater and a dock for visiting boaters. It's keeping the less controversial parts — brick streets, decorative light poles and landscaping, as well as new benches, trash cans and sidewalks.

Hoffman, the architect, was disappointed.

"We were hired to bring a new vision to the docks," he said. "It wasn't about 'We need the trash cans painted, we need some new benches, some new bushes and flowers.' That was not what you contracted us to do."

"In my view, residents, merchants, the entire city is missing out on a pretty wonderful opportunity to reap great benefits."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.

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