LARGO — It was about six months ago that commissioners approved a zip line and obstacle course for the woods north of Highland Recreation Complex in the face of strong objections from dozens of residents.
The owners of Bradenton-based TreeUmph! Adventure Course hoped they would open the new location by last November. Parks and recreation officials assured residents and city commissioners the complex at 400 Highland Ave. could handle the influx of people sparked by the new attraction.
But now, the process is on hold while the city determines if that's actually true.
Officials hired an architectural consultant to examine whether the site has enough parking and restrooms to meet building code standards, an analysis that could cost up to about $11,000. Preliminary results show there may be enough parking, said Assistant City Manager Mike Staffopoulos, but restrooms are on shakier ground.
"When you have a project like this, you need to ask a lot of hard questions to know what exactly is required," said City Manager Henry Schubert. "Everybody should've pressed for more details."
The idea for the aerial course — made up of wooden platforms, ropes and ziplines — came out of the recreation, parks and arts department after parks superintendent Greg Brown visited one with his son on a Boy Scout field trip. The city put out a request for proposals in 2014 and got results back from three companies. They chose TreeUmph! based on the company's experienced staff and aesthetics of the flagship park in Bradenton, according to city records.
The city worked out a plan where TreeUmph! would build, maintain and run the course, and Largo would get a 5 percent cut of sales for the first five years, then 7 percent after that. It breezed through the first reading before commissioners. By the second reading, news of the proposal had spread through surrounding neighborhoods. Dozens of residents voiced their opposition with concerns mainly about noise, environmental impact and parking.
When questioned by commissioners about parking concerns, parks director Joan Byrne said visitors could use the lot already available at Highland with the option for overflow at City Hall and the Largo Sports Complex. Regarding restrooms, Byrne said they intended to direct participants to the outdoor facilities near the baseball field and tennis courts east of the rec center.
"These questions were brought up during the presentation, and it was like, 'Yeah, everything's fine,' " said Commissioner Curtis Holmes, who, along with Commissioner John Carroll, voted against the project. "Apparently, that's not so."
Only after commissioners approved the project did a meeting with the city's community development department put the parking and restroom capacity in question, said community development director Carol Stricklin.
When asked why this information wasn't addressed earlier, Stricklin said her department serves as the project reviewer, not the project planner. That's up to whichever department developed the idea, which, in this case, was parks and recreation.
When the same question was addressed to Byrne, the parks director, she redirected a reporter to the community development department, which held an early meeting with TreeUmph! that Byrne said she wasn't present at but was told "everyone around the table was comfortable that things could proceed," she said.
"There was a pre-development meeting, and things were discussed regarding parking and bathrooms, and we were told it looked okay," she said.
Stricklin described the meeting as an informal review that doesn't typically go into specific requirements covered under the building code, mainly because of how early it happens in the process. Rather, the city tells the developer what technical information will be required down the line if the project is approved and allows the developer to ask questions.
"It would have been good for an earlier assessment to have been done," she said. "But where the project was in the process, it was not something that had been submitted to us for review."
TreeUmph! owner Aaron Corr said he wished those details were worked out even earlier before the city solicited requests for proposal. He didn't think the permitting process would require a restroom analysis or that it would take as long as it has.
"With a better understanding of that once all the planning people were involved, it just turned into a longer process," he said.
Whisper Highlands resident Nancy Lamagna, an opponent who spoke at a commission meeting, said she still has concerns over the park's potential impact on her neighborhood. But, she said this week, she was glad to see the city looking into parking and restroom capacity.
"The city is doing now what it should have done a long time ago," she said.
Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.
Editor's note: This article was amended to include this correction — Mike Staffopoulos is Largo's assistant city manager. An article on a proposed zipline that ran Feb. 24 misstated his name.