TARPON SPRINGS — Depending on whom you ask, it's either a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that can't be passed up, or it's a financial disaster waiting to happen.
Should Tarpon Springs buy the former Linger Longer Mobile Home and RV Park so it can put in a much-needed boat launch on the Anclote River?
City commissioners will likely decide Tuesday whether to put a referendum on January's ballot asking Tarpon residents if the city should buy the site. If voters approve, the city would then pay $4 million for the vacant 20-acre property on the river's north bank, not far from the Sponge Docks.
"It's as major a decision as you can have in this town," said City Manager Mark LeCouris, who expects Tuesday night's meeting to be a "donnybrook."
That's because opinions are split on the issue.
A divided City Commission has been getting advice from a divided public.
Former mayors are taking sides.
Two of Tarpon's advisory boards disagree with each other. The parks board says Linger Longer is a golden opportunity to get riverfront land for the public at a bargain-basement price — the property was valued at $14 million before the real estate market tanked. But Tarpon's budget advisory board worries that the city still can't afford it.
"I have no doubt that this would be a beautiful site for a park," former mayor Frank DiDonato told city commissioners at a recent public meeting. "I just question whether now is the time to spend $4 million, and it's not going to stop at $4 million."
"In an ideal world, this is a wonderful piece of land," added former mayor Beverley Billiris. "But it isn't an ideal world. We are in tough economic times."
However, former mayor Anita Protos is pushing for a referendum.
"For 30 years, people have always talked about more boat ramps. We've done nothing. Zero," she said. "Let our voice be heard as voters. If the vote is no, we will walk away. If the vote is yes, we will find a way."
A referendum would be needed because Tarpon's city charter requires voters to approve a land purchase this expensive.
Tarpon has been seeking ways to increase the number of places where boaters can launch along the Anclote River. There's a public launch at the city's Craig Park, but it's often congested with boat traffic, especially on weekends.
The Linger Longer Mobile Home and RV Park used to be a tight-knit retiree community where golf carts rambled up and down miniature lanes. After its roughly 100 residents were evicted, the site was rezoned in 2007. Today a developer could put more than 240 apartments there, said John Tarapani, agent for the property owners, a California family.
"My immediate thought was this site should be preserved for today and tomorrow's generations," Tarapani said, recalling his first visit to the property. "I felt physically sick at the prospect of 243 multifamily units being built on this site."
Tarapani convinced the property owners to offer to sell the land to the city; before that, it had been on the market with a list price of $6.75 million.
LeCouris, the city manager, is advising commissioners not to pursue buying the Linger Longer site. His reasons:
• To put in a boat ramp, the city would have to dredge part of the river, which would probably lead to lawsuits seeking to block the project.
• He worries about potential environmental contamination there.
• Buying the site would use up a significant chunk of the city's Penny for Pinellas sales tax money for the next seven years, crowding out other projects.
• The cost of the project would add up — $4.5 million for the land purchase and financing, another $1.5 million to build a boat launch. Then the area would have to be maintained. Turning the remaining 16 acres into a public park could cost about $780,000, the city's consultants say. It could cost up to $3.6 million to turn that 16 acres into a moneymaking RV park to offset the project's costs.
Current city commissioners are split on the Linger Longer question.
Mayor David Archie has serious doubts about the idea. Commissioner Susan Slattery supports it. Townsend Tarapani is recusing himself because his father is the property owner's agent. And Chris Alahouzos and Jeff Larsen have been asking for more information to prepare for Tuesday's vote.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151.