TARPON SPRINGS — With a few minor adjustments, the Tarpon Springs City Commission has passed ordinance changes that would provide greater oversight for the usage of its image-shaping Sponge Docks.
The commission also has increased usage rates for its neighboring marina.
The vote was 4-0. Mayor Beverley Billiris was not in attendance at Tuesday night's commission meeting because of a death in the family.
Effective immediately, those who use the city's docks to anchor the boats that bring in sponge from the Gulf of Mexico will be charged a yearly $165 fee and must prove that at least $15,000 a year in sales is made from the natural commodity.
In addition, sponge boats cannot sit idle longer than four months, with the city providing regular checks.
The city's staff had recommended a $20,000 revenue limit, but some sponge boat owners surveyed suggested that a $10,000 limit would be more achievable. Several commissioners shared that concern.
Commissioner Peter Dalacos offered the $15,000 compromise, saying the city wanted to make the "bar attainable where someone who has the desire to do this as a profession can and is not just Jimmy Buffetting it on a boat."
Commissioner Chris Alahouzos said the new requirements benefit the city's Sponge Docks. The city has 16 sponge boat docking spaces with 14 active sponge boats.
"With this ordinance, we are promoting and preserving the sponge industry," Alahouzos said. "The sponge boat must be operational and have proper permits. This is very important."
The commission also increased usage rates for the city's 21 marina slips. The daily rates increased from 90 cents per foot of boat length to $1.50 per foot. A 26-foot boat that pays about $23 a day now must pay $39.
Monthly rates for residents, which are determined by the square footage of the slip, are now up an average of 15 percent. An 800-square-foot slip went from $208 a month to $240. A 560-square-foot slip went from $146 to $168.
Commercial and nonresident vessels now must pay higher fees for monthly use: $300 for an 800-square-foot slip, up from $250; and $210 for a 560-square-foot slip, up from $175.
As for the docks, sponging is the resource that brings thousands of tourists to Tarpon Springs. The sponge boats are an attraction, especially when the docked boat has drying sponge hanging from one end to the other. But in recent years, concern has risen over the number of boats that never leave the dock.
Jim Skaroulis, owner of the Sponge Factory and a sponge processing warehouse at the docks, said the city has tried to regulate sponge boats for years. At Tuesday's meeting, he was pleased the city put a definition to a "working sponge boat."
"What is a working sponge boat and which isn't," Skaroulis said. "And actually, we all know the boats that are not working. It's time for us to all realize this is what keeps the Sponge Docks alive. Once that is out of the equation, it will be a problem for all of us. We all feed off of the sponge boats."
Staff Writer Demorris A. Lee can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org