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Residents surprised Pinellas County sided with them, not Tarpon, on water issue

TARPON SPRINGS — Skip Mountain and his neighbors along Dixie Highway in northern Pinellas County knew the odds were against them.

They were going up against Tarpon Springs city government and the Pinellas County Commission would render the verdict.

They thought little guys rarely win in these situations.

But this time they did.

Tuesday night, the Pinellas County Commission unanimously voted to deny the city of Tarpon Springs a conditional use permit so that it could put a well on a small plot of residential land the city bought in unincorporated Pinellas.

"We didn't think they were going to listen and agree with us," said Mountain, who has lived on his family's land at 1732 Dixie Highway since the 1960s. "We thought we would just go down there and have our say and they would vote in favor of Tarpon Springs.

"We were quite surprised."

Glenn Fletcher was another of the 10 neighbors to oppose Tarpon Springs' request. He also spoke at Tuesday's meeting and was just as surprised.

"I didn't expect the unanimous ruling," said Fletcher, 46, a 10-year resident of 1704 Dixie Highway. "It renewed my faith in the system. The commission really put themselves in our shoes."

In 2006, Tarpon Springs residents approved a referendum that would allow the city to become water independent by building its own water supply. The $40 million project planned to draw water from 16 wells in the city and six more in unincorporated Pinellas. Including the one Tuesday, three would need County Commission approval.

The city's overall plan involves creating 20 to 25 wells to draw brackish water and treat it as an alternative drinking water supply. City officials say they are awaiting review and approval of a water permit by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, a request filed in 2008.

Residents in the unincorporated area complained of possible sinkholes caused by the lowering of the water levels. They also expressed concerns about the effects on their own wells.

"We have been told that the quality of our water should not be affected and that we are protected," Mountain told county commissioners. "But we have not seen it on a legal document or even seen in writing how we will be protected."

County Commissioner John Morroni said Tuesday the recent spate of sinkholes and the past history of sinkhole damage in north Pinellas left him unable to support Tarpon Springs' request.

"Just think what this would do to a neighborhood. I just couldn't put myself there," Morroni said.

Commissioner Susan Latvala said the wells should go in the city, where voters approved a referendum for the water plan several years ago.

"It's a city project," Latvala said. "I think they should put the wells in the city where the city voters requested it."

Paul Smith, Tarpon Springs public services director, said the number of wells is a way to reduce the impact on the entire system. He said the city will explore other options.

"The County Commission's message was that they were not going to approve our requests in the unincorporated areas," Smith said. "We knew to watch this one and have not moved forward with any of the other locations. We are looking at other properties."

Residents surprised Pinellas County sided with them, not Tarpon, on water issue 01/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 7:57pm]
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