As the city moves toward a master plan for Maximo Park, intent on balancing the competing interests of archaeology and ecology on one hand and recreation on the other, some intent on protecting the waterfront expanse and its rare prehistoric Indian middens can't yet envision a truce.
The dispute between preservationists and disc golfers, whose game calls for throwing a Frisbee-style disc into above-ground baskets, has simmered for a few years.
Anger grew when the city's Community Preservation Commission agreed a year ago — with conditions — to a retroactive certificate of appropriateness for the disc golf course that had been installed in 2001. Activists say the game harms the park's ecology and archaeological sites where American Indians, including the extinct Tocobaga Indians, once lived.
"Rome is burning," said Beth Connor, a Sierra Club volunteer and 45-year resident of the Pinellas Point neighborhood in which Maximo Park is located.
Tension was evident at a public forum not too long ago to discuss a master plan for the 40-acre park at 6600 34th St. S. "We got screwed," Connor said.
"There are only four Native American mounds in St. Petersburg," she said later. "We understand the need and the want to be outside, but it doesn't have to be on top of a Native American, very sensitive site. We like disc golf, but we're saying, not in this park."
Will Michaels, former president of St. Petersburg Preservation, said he was not aware of that type of activity at other archaeological sites in the city. He noted that Maximo is designated a "passive park with wilderness area" for activities such as nature appreciation, bird-watching and picnicking.
"I have a hard time seeing disc golf in that," he said.
Andrew Ross, a board member with the Tocobaga Disc Golf Club that built the Maximo course and the group's liaison with the city, says members try to be good stewards of the park.
"The reputation of the park before we got there, it was a hangout for cruisers and druggies. You couldn't walk 20 feet without finding a used condom over there. We have worked very hard to change that," Ross said. "Sometimes the Frisbees do hit trees, but it does happen and that's the only thing we are doing harmful to the park and that is a little tree bark damage. The problem is, they don't want to have a future with the golf course involved."
The Maximo Park dispute has put Jeff Moates in the position of a referee of sorts. He heads the West Central Region of the Florida Public Archaeology Network at the University of South Florida, which helps communities and local government preserve archaeological sites.
"Both sides are trying to either increase the significance of the archaeological importance or decrease the significance to fit their own vantage point," he said.
The middens of shells, fish bones and pottery — "the normal throwaway stuff" of Florida's indigenous peoples dating back 5,000 years — are important from an educational and preservation viewpoint, Moates said.
"The remains that are out there are in good shape. There is lots of historical significance to the site and people care about it. Those people are on the side of it just being a passive-use park. They see it as a site that should be respected and that it's a finite resource," the archaeologist said.
"The significance that the disc golfers take from it is that it is an interesting place for them to play their game."
On his recommendation, the Parks and Recreation Department relocated two disc golf baskets. The others, Moates said, "skirt the visible remains" and players have been asked to avoid those areas.
"It was a compromise more or less with the disc golfers," he said. "I don't think they were happy with it, but they did it."
Charles Park, a retired executive who lives in Gulfport, plays at the St. Petersburg park three to four times a week.
"I enjoy the beauty of my surroundings. I am actually enjoying in my mind the fact that the ground was once used by the Native Americans, but we are the people now. It's not like we should put it under a glass jar," he said.
"From my perspective, there is one side complaining, those that are for basically closing the park and having it just be an Indian mound. St. Petersburg, they are trying to make everybody happy, yet the only people giving anything up is the disc golfers."
The current dispute is just the latest of a number of issues that have plagued the park through the years, among them crime, a herd of wild cats and in the recent past, according to a November 2011 report to the Community Preservation Commission, disc golfers. The report requesting the after-the-fact certificate of appropriateness for the course noted that "although efforts have been undertaken to protect and preserve the site, significant archaeological resources have been affected by the introduction of the disc golf course."
That is in the past, Parks and Recreation director Sherry McBee said recently. "We have had no complaints for over a year," she said, adding that the city met with a club representative to discuss the park. "They have been responsive. I think it was a matter of education."
Connor is skeptical. "There are loose cannons out there who will never follow the rules," she said, noting that players had, in fact, installed a new basket without permission. It was preservationists who notified the city of the infraction, she said.
Conditions for the commission's approval of the disc golf course included stipulations that a master plan be developed for Maximo, its local landmark designation be expanded to incorporate the entire property and that signs be posted stating it is illegal to collect artifacts. Others included limiting access to the top of the mounds with native plantings and pursuing a National Register of Historic Places nomination.
Most conditions have been met or are being satisfied, McBee said. The master plan will be presented in January.
It remains to be seen whether there can be compromise about the historic park.
Michaels, a passionate preservationist, is enthusiastic about disc golf. But, he added in an email, "Of the three interests at Maximo — recreation, wilderness preserve, and historic and archaeological resources — should there be a future conflict between the three, the city plan should clearly state that the historic and archaeological interests should prevail."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.