CLEARWATER — A proposal for an educational, "eco-friendly" zip line course that would lead visitors through the treetops of Sand Key Park has earned early praise as a unique way to experience nature — and stiff opposition from nearby condo residents.
Clearwater Canopy Tours founder Dev Pathik said his course would work like an elevated nature trail at the waterfront park. Rope bridges and five zip lines would link about a dozen treetop platforms, each with its own lesson: nesting seabirds, Australian pines, the plight of the manatee and the like. The course, he said, would evoke vistas of the Costa Rican rainforest, where cables connect researchers from tree to tree.
Pathik is a former mountain climber who has helped build dozens of similar courses, including a TeamBuilders challenge course for corporate executives at Palm Harbor's Innisbrook Resort. He said about $1 million has been invested in the Sand Key tour. He's betting that families and school groups would pay $50 to $70 for two hours of nature exhibits and zooming through the treetops on paths called the "Airborne Joy" and "Osprey Flight to Freedom."
"But it's about more than the adventure," said Pathik, who admits he's "jazzed" at the idea. "You learn about yourself and how you can triumph over fear."
A Pinellas County advisory board that heard Pathik's proposal last year was similarly jazzed. County Administrator Bob LaSala wrote to city officials Monday that the course could "inject life, color and energy" into the park and bring in money to local businesses with "minimal to zero impacts on the park's natural resources," traffic and neighbors.
Wrong, says the Sand Key Civic Association, a community group of condo owners. Spokeswoman JoEllen Farnham said the course could bring in too much traffic and damage the park's serenity. Farnham told the City Council, "This is a regional park, and we would like to keep it that way."
Farnham would not say how many residents had expressed concerns, adding that the group has meetings planned through April. On Monday, Farnham called "the environmental effect on flora and fauna" a "grave concern."
Pathik said traffic estimates — eight to 10 cars an hour — would pale against the park's estimate of 1.3 million visitors a year.
The park, he added, would be almost completely impact-free. The zip lines would slope downward, powered by gravity. The course would consist of a 50-foot entry tower, some bridges, cables and utility poles, and a shed to hold helmets and harnesses. No generators, no lights. The only power piece, he said, would be a laptop to check reservations.
"She's grasping at straws," Pathik said of Farnham.
City planning and development director Michael Delk said city building codes mandate a 30-foot height limit in public parks. It will likely take months for the course's early diagrams to wind their way through the permitting process.
At least one of the park's neighbors likes the idea. "We absolutely, unquestionably support it," said Jack Guy, a spokesman for the Sheraton Sand Key Resort.
Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.