ST. PETERSBURG — Fewer than a dozen people showed up at the offices of the Southwest Florida Water Management District on Wednesday to urge denial of St. Petersburg's request to demolish its recently closed Pier and build a replacement.
Several wore red T-shirts representing the group Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, which has collected enough petitions to force an Aug. 27 referendum about the proposed $50 million Pier known as the Lens. The appearance of the group, whose motto is "Stop the Lens," opened another front in the battle to halt the controversial project.
Mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford, who sued to force a referendum on the fate of the now-shuttered Pier, wore a red jacket in solidarity with the anti-Lens group. She mentioned the upcoming referendum and her appeal of a judge's ruling as reasons to be cautious about issuing the permit.
"There is the potential that if Stop the Lens is successful, there will be no Lens project, but if the permit is given to demolish the inverted pyramid … we are stuck with potentially a huge navigational hazard," she said, noting that the Lens design calls for keeping the massive caissons under the old Pier.
"I have a 29-foot sailboat, 19-foot whaler, a little kayak, little canoe and a little laser sailboat. We love to be out on the water and, frankly, a concrete structure like that will be a huge navigational hazard. I think it would be better to push the pause button right now and wait until we find out what will happen with these other very important decisions."
The Tampa meeting was a routine step in the permitting process, Swiftmud spokeswoman Susanna Martinez Tarokh said. A decision is not expected for at least a month.
Environmental activist Lorraine Margeson said the project would have a negative impact on the environment, affecting threatened species such as the roseate spoonbill and reddish egret, which nest nearby on Bird Island off Coffee Pot Boulevard. She and others also said the manatee population would be jeopardized.
James DeRusha said he was speaking on behalf of "the many different marine life and species" that live under and around the Pier. "They couldn't be here today, because they've been given an eviction notice," he said.
Cindy Miller questioned the method planned to clean the Lens canopy and wanted to know what would be in water used to clean the structure, how it will affect the natural habitat and how much water will be used in the process.
Hal Freedman of WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete was the only speaker on behalf of the Lens. "Admittedly, any work that is done on the Pier will be disruptive for a period of time. However, based on the application and review of the Army Corps of Engineers, there appears to be a net environmental benefit of the Lens project," he said.
Freedman said that construction barges will be prohibited from working or anchoring within 20 feet of existing sea grass beds and that the project likely won't affect manatee habitats or fish. Besides, he said, the new Pier will occupy a smaller footprint than the now-closed 1973 structure, allow less vehicular traffic and, as a result, have less impact on the environment.
Thomas W. Reese, a lawyer specializing in environmental and land use issues, sent an 11-page letter. He represents Bud Risser, one of the leaders of Concerned Citizens. The project would affect Risser's interests, said Reese, noting that his client lives in a waterfront home in Snell Isle and owns "a remarkable, environmentally sensitive piece of real estate that may be impacted by any construction in this area."
Reese urged the agency to deny the permit "because the city has not provided reasonable assurance concerning compliance with Florida's water quality standards" nor "sufficiently avoided and minimized adverse impacts to the aquatic environment."
In Pinellas County, a separate application for a construction permit hit a snag a few weeks ago when officials said the Lens did not meet the requirements of the county's water and navigation code because of its size. As envisioned, the project would need a significant variance, a process that would require a public hearing and a decision by Pinellas County commissioners. The city responded that county staff was working with outdated figures and promised to provide new dimensions.
That has not yet happened, said Kelli Levy, a manager in the county's department of environment and infrastructure. "We met with them a couple of weeks ago and it looks like they should be revising the application fairly soon," she said.
The project also is being reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is being asked to issue a joint demolition and construction permit. Spokeswoman Nancy Sticht said there is no time line for a decision.
Demolition of the closed Pier had been scheduled for late August, with construction of the Lens to begin in early 2014.