TARPON SPRINGS — The fight over the Sponge Docks is far from over. In fact, it's ramping up.
Critics continue to blast the city's $1.3 million plan to beautify and enhance the well-known tourist district. They're passing around petitions and packing meetings at City Hall. They intend to keep it up all spring.
Most important: They're starting to make Tarpon Springs commissioners have second thoughts about the project, asserting that federal authorities won't allow a boardwalk or transient boat docks because they would become navigation hazards in the Anclote River.
Mary Klimis Coburn, an attorney for several Sponge Docks business and property owners, calls the city's plans ill-informed.
She says sponge divers park their boats two abreast on the river's south side and shrimpers park their boats three abreast on the river's north side, leaving a fairly narrow channel in between. She contends that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won't allow the planned 8-foot-wide boardwalk on the river's edge on the south side because that would make it too difficult for boats to get through. It could also interfere with dredging the river, she says.
"The city of Tarpon Springs has put forth an unpermittable plan," Coburn said.
City Manager Mark LeCouris scoffs at this. City staffers think the boardwalk wouldn't be a problem. He said the city has seen no evidence to indicate otherwise.
"Why would we do something to block up the river? It doesn't make sense," he said. "Our people have said there's enough room. But if we can't get it permitted, there will be no wooden dock. That money will go toward something else."
Tarpon Springs commissioners haven't yet voted to go through with the Sponge Docks project. That could happen in May, after construction bids come in.
Commissioners have repeatedly expressed support for the plan, which is intended to spruce up the area and make the docks more inviting for tourists. A candidate who publicly supported the plan was elected to the commission this month by a wide margin.
But Commissioners Townsend Tarapani and David Banther said Wednesday and Thursday that the city shouldn't proceed until questions about the river have been addressed.
This is a shift in gears, because most critics have been voicing a different complaint — that the plans look too modern for the historic district.
"If a place can have a soul, then the Sponge Docks would be the soul of our town," said Jason Tsardoulis, a third-generation Tarpon resident and one of 15 speakers who passionately condemned the plan at a commission meeting Tuesday night. "We've got a living link in this town to our past. This redevelopment plan would compromise that, if not abolish it."
Mayor David Archie responded, "I don't think that anybody up here wants to kill the Sponge Docks." He pushed back on accusations that the city has not reached out to sponge divers and merchants on the docks. "There have been so many meetings now that to me, it's mind-boggling," he said.
The city's architect on the job, Ed Hoffman, developed the plans after several public workshops over two years in which residents, boaters and business owners said they wanted to maintain the docks' Greek village atmosphere and working waterfront, but they also wanted trees for shade, better lighting and wayfinding signs for visitors.
The most significant part of the plan is a small, oval-shaped amphitheater with benches and shade structures. It would serve as a gathering spot along the bank of the Anclote River. That spot is already used for the popular Night in the Islands festivals, which feature Greek music, dancing and food.
A boardwalk would be added, but sponge boats that currently dock at a concrete wharf there will still be able to dock.
Other elements of the plan:
• A sail-shaped gateway for the district's main entrance.
• Red brick streets.
• Nautically themed signs to help visitors get around.
• Transient boat docks for visiting boaters.
Once the bids come back and real price tags are attached to everything, commissioners will decide how much of the work they want done.
Staff writer Nova Beall contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.