127 boat slips planned
500 people have expressed interest in renting the slips
$500 is the amount of the deposit to get into the lottery for a slip
$15.50 cost of a slip per foot per month (slips are 30 to 55 feet)
CLEARWATER — Even as the city forges ahead with its plan to build 127 boat slips near Coachman Park, opponents of the idea are still fighting it.
They're questioning whether Clearwater really will be able to rent out the slips in this slow economy. So far, only one boater has put down a deposit for a space.
In addition, residents of the neighboring Pierce 100 condominium are objecting to the $12.8-million project as it moves through regulatory hurdles in order to get permits from the county, state and federal governments.
But Clearwater officials say their belief in the boat slips hasn't wavered. They say the new docks will be good for boaters, will boost downtown development and will eventually generate income for the city.
"We want to make our downtown a destination point," said City Council member Carlen Petersen. "Our waterfront is under-utilized. We need to take advantage of this opportunity to create a working recreational waterfront."
Last year, city voters narrowly approved the plan to build the boat slips as well as a promenade, boardwalk and fishing pier in Clearwater Harbor. The city promised the project would be self-supporting within a few years.
The boat slips will be from 30 to 55 feet long, and rents will be $15.50 per foot per month.
After officials said more than 500 people had expressed interest in renting the 127 slips, the city recently came up with a lottery to assign the spaces. People must send in a $500 deposit by January to enter. They are to learn in March whether they'll get one of the slips.
So far, exactly one person has entered this lottery.
That's prompting opponents to say, We told you so.
"The City Commission should not proceed with this project unless they are sure they can make good on their promise that it will not cost the people of Clearwater any tax money," said Anne Garris of Save the Bayfront, a group that fought the boat slips.
However, city officials are far from panic mode. They're hearing that many boaters are waiting until after the holidays to part with a $500 deposit. And the docks themselves won't be finished until next summer at the earliest.
"This project has a 40-year life span. It might take a couple of years for the economy to rebound and for us to get it fully operational, but it will pay for itself," said Bill Morris, director of the city's marine and aviation department. "This is a short-term economic hurdle."
Pierce 100 condo owners, who fought a long and unsuccessful battle against the route of the new Memorial Causeway bridge, are now opposing the boat slips.
At a recent city zoning hearing, they argued that the project will come too close to their property; that it will be too noisy; that it could harm manatees, dolphins and sea grasses in the harbor; and that it doesn't follow the city's own codes governing docks and development.
"I think it's a good project. It's just in the wrong location," said Jackson Bowman, a lawyer for the condominium association.
Despite their opposition, the city's Community Development Board recently approved the project. Board members felt the docks would be a welcome addition to a downtown that already has a mix of condos, businesses and public spaces.
But the city still must secure permits from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Pinellas County Water and Navigation Control Authority. Among other things, the city will have to prove that its floating concrete docks won't hurt the environment.
The city is confident its project will pass muster environmentally and that it fits in with its surroundings. But Pierce 100 residents will be opposing it every step of the way.
"This is just the first hurdle that the city has to get over," Bowman, the Pierce 100 attorney, said after the zoning hearing. He added that residents probably won't appeal the city board's decision. "I think where the condo association should put its time is to try to stop it at the state and the Corps level."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.