TARPON SPRINGS — City officials have torn up parts of a $1.3 million plan to enhance the Sponge Docks tourist district and are going back to the drawing board.
They're ditching the controversial components of the plan — a boardwalk and amphitheater at the water's edge and a dock for visiting boaters.
"It is obvious that on this issue, we're not going to be able to come to a consensus," said City Manager Mark LeCouris. "There's too much division."
Officials are keeping the less controversial features of the plan — brick streets, decorative light poles and landscaping, as well as new benches, trash cans and sidewalks.
They intend to work out the final planning and design details for those features at public City Commission meetings over the next couple of months. They hope to get the work under way during the slow, hot days this summer so it can be finished in time for the next tourist season.
By year's end, officials envision being able to hang Christmas lights and Epiphany banners from the new light fixtures.
In the meantime, the blame game is under way.
Some Tarpon Springs residents remain outraged that the city has spent nearly $350,000 on designs and engineering for the entire Sponge Docks plan. They assert that federal authorities would never have allowed the city to construct a boardwalk alongside the narrow Anclote River. If taxpayers' money was wasted on an unrealistic proposal, they want someone held accountable.
"What concerns me a great deal is that you as commissioners were blindsided," lawyer Mary Klimis Coburn told the City Commission on Tuesday night.
"Y'all were sideswiped on this. You need to find out why," former Mayor Anita Protos told commissioners. "Someone didn't come forth with all the information. It was held from you."
Critics of the plan contend that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would not have permitted a Sponge Docks boardwalk because that would have made it too difficult for boats to navigate the Anclote River. A boardwalk also could have interfered with dredging the river in the future, opponents say.
"Putting a dock on a narrow waterway is reckless and unconscionable," said tugboat captain Sean O'Keefe, who owns a commercial fishing boat in Tarpon.
The Corps of Engineers will not confirm any of this.
Those who have been in charge of the Sponge Docks beautification plan are firmly defending themselves.
"The idea that we were trying to hide anything or sneak something through is just not true," the project's architect, Ed Hoffman, said at Tuesday's meeting.
"There's been some pretty strong accusations about our credibility, and I think that needs to be resolved."
Hoffman reiterated that the plan for the Sponge Docks was developed from community input through a series of public workshops.
He said the engineering firm URS has been doing the marine permitting work for the project and has been in communication with the state and federal agencies that would eventually have to approve the boardwalk.
"I can probably bring facts forward to dispute everything that's been said about the river," said LeCouris, the city manager. "This project wasn't stopped because of so-called facts that came out."
Instead, he said, the subject had become too divisive. He fired back at audience members who said the city hadn't done its homework.
"I'm extremely disappointed with the actions of some people tonight," LeCouris said. "There's no need at this time to go into the past. There is no reason to come up with the negativity."
But commissioners gave mixed signals regarding how aggressively they want to review what went wrong, or whether the city was in the wrong.
"I would just like to move ahead and put this behind us," said Mayor David Archie, who is weary of the subject.
Commissioner David Banther said he wanted to find out what went awry, but "not finger-pointing, not a witch-hunt."
But Commissioner Townsend Tarapani demanded a full explanation of why the city spent $350,000 on a project that possibly couldn't have been built in the first place.
"We need to find out where we went wrong," he said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.