MADEIRA BEACH — Just a week after agreeing to participate in a state grant that would protect the city's fishing industry, city officials are backing away from a formal approval.
At issue is a $1.6 million state grant to Fishbusterz, a commercial fish house and commercial dock facility at 13613 Gulf Blvd.
The Florida Communities Trust has placed the Fishbusterz project on the top of its list for the next round of funding.
The money would be used to pay down Fishbusterz's mortgage and for a variety of improvements, including an ice plant, a storage building and a larger fuel tank.
Fishbusterz would continue to operate the business, which services up to 50 commercial fishing boaters and has docking and storage facilities capable of handling a million pounds of fish annually.
In exchange, Fishbusterz would give up any future development rights to the property.
As a signatory to the grant, the city would guarantee that the property would be used "in perpetuity" for commercial fishing or aquaculture.
If approved, the state money would preserve one of the city's two commercial fish houses that is supported by many of the commercial fishermen who regularly dock at the facility to sell their catches.
The big catch in the pending grant, however, is that although the city is responsible for ensuring the commercial fishing use forever, it won't own the property.
That unlimited obligation has the city's top administration worried.
"From the outset, I have felt that if the city is going to take a lead role in managing the grant, we should have an interest in the property," says City Manager W.D. Higginbotham Jr.
"Perpetuity is an extremely long time," said Paula Cohen, the city's planning and zoning director at a workshop this month.
Higginbotham cautioned the commission against signing onto the grant unless it can hold title to the property.
Fishbusterz owner Eric Dickstein pleaded with the commission to approve the grant.
"This is our shot. This is your chance to say we can do something today for the fishing industry. This commission just needs to stand behind it," Dickstein said.
Despite those concerns, all but Commissioner Steve Kochick remained in favor of the grant proposal.
Now, it appears that consensus is disappearing.
"It looks pretty darn shaky to me," Mayor Pat Shontz said Friday. "As far as I can see, the city will gain nothing except a lot of work. It is not the city's job to preserve commercial fishing."
Commissioner Terry Lister is also concerned the commission could be assuming future financial liabilities for the city.
One of the reasons for the commission's changing attitude is a highly critical analysis by the city's attorney, Michael Connolly.
Connolly says not only does it appear the property owner cannot legally sign the grant, but that the city "will be legally required to provide matching funds."
Under the terms of the grant, the city will not own title to the property, but is responsible for the property's management.
"The city has no ability to control activities on the property," Connolly said, and would have to spend money to take the property owner to court to ensure the grant requirements are met.
Also, the attorney said, any activities on the property outside of the grant requirements "could jeopardize future state funding to the city."
The final decision will come next month when the commission reviews the actual grant proposal during its Nov. 2 workshop. If there is still a consensus to move forward, the final vote will happen Nov. 9.