TARPON SPRINGS — To the folks in Tarpon Springs, it's a neighborhood park. Sure, there are 155 acres of land that includes 25 acres of causeway and beach that opens up to an unobstructed view of the Gulf of Mexico.
There are no restaurants, and there is no one selling ice cream or $2 drafts during happy hour.
It's Fred Howard Park.
Right down the road from Tarpon Springs High and an after-school hangout spot for students. It's the place where seniors go walking and lovebirds watch the sun descend daily beyond the horizon.
But now Pinellas County officials are considering a $5-a-car fee to access the beach. For some Tarpon Springs residents, that's like paying a fee to enter the front door of one's own home.
"This is unacceptable to us," said Mo Brunelle, president of the Pointe Alexis Homeowners Association, a 500-resident community adjacent to Howard Park.
"We are being asked to pay to use our neighborhood park. The central and southern part of the county have beautiful beaches. We have Howard Park and that's it. Now the county wants to start charging us for the only beach available to us."
The Tarpon Springs City Commission is riled up by the proposed fee as well. At its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday, the commission will discuss a resolution that "strongly opposes the imposition of any fees" for Howard Park.
County officials are proposing an access fee for the causeway and beach entrance to Howard Park. A fee is also being proposed for Fort De Soto Park.
At $5 a carload at Howard Park, the county is estimating it will raise $547,000.
The County Commission will have the ultimate say about the fee when it votes on its annual budget in September.
Paul Cozzie, the county's cultural, education and leisure director, said there are a couple of things to remember about the Howard Park fee.
"It's not a fee to get into the park," Cozzie said. "The fee as it is proposed would only be assessed at the causeway and beach and what it is is a beach access parking fee. There is no difference than what occurs to folks who go and pay to park at Sand Key."
Cozzie said access to the mainland portion of the park would still be free, and bicyclists and walkers will not be charged. He said there will be no additional cost to park in one of the 600 parking spaces that are at the beach once the access fee is paid.
A tollbooth is more economical than meters or a pay-and-display system, Cozzie said.
Howard Park has a butterfly garden, several miles of kayak and canoe waterway trails, a ballfield, two playgrounds, more than 90 picnic tables and nine shelters with grills and tables.
The beach and causeway portions have been closed since September because saltwater damaged its two bridges. Construction and repair are to be completed and the beach portion reopened in late September or early October.
Tarpon Springs Commissioner Chris Alahouzos suggested that the community's senior citizens be spared if a fee is imposed.
"Our senior citizens make up a significant portion of Tarpon's population," Alahouzos said. "They are among our most vulnerable citizens. Squeezed by higher prices for everything from food, lodging, insurance, energy cost, and the list is endless."
Bruce Snyder, president of the Friends of Howard Park, agreed the fee could be a problem.
"There are a lot of seniors and people who don't have a lot of money," Snyder said. "Five dollars a day will be a hardship. Some will gladly pay a yearly fee, but it's a little neighborhood park. They say 2 million people a year (visit the park). With a tollbooth, that number is going to go way down."