TARPON SPRINGS — Due to a sustained public outcry and some pointed questions, Tarpon Springs officials are hitting the brakes on the city's $1.3 million plan to beautify and enhance the Sponge Docks tourist district.
A majority of Tarpon city commissioners want to put the project on hold, so the city staff is shutting it down — for now.
"We've stopped everything, so we're not spending any more money on it," said City Manager Mark LeCouris. "We won't be starting up again unless the commission says to."
Tarpon residents who are opposed to the project assert that federal authorities won't allow the city to add an 8-foot-wide boardwalk to the Sponge Docks at the water's edge. They believe it would become a navigation hazard on the narrowest part of the Anclote River.
The project's architect firmly believes otherwise. "It's a totally reasonable thing to do," architect Ed Hoffman said of the boardwalk.
The Sponge Docks improvement project has gone through a years-long planning and design process that included at least four public workshops. Various elements of the plan were recently put out for bid, including the boardwalk, a small amphitheater, brick streets, decorative light poles, way-finding signs, an entrance gateway and a dock for visiting boaters.
Once the city got price quotes from contractors, Tarpon commissioners were planning to decide which parts of the plan they actually wanted to do.
But that's not on the agenda now. Instead, the bidding process has been halted. Officials say they'll do further research and meet with the boardwalk's opponents and supporters.
Some opponents of the Sponge Docks improvement project think parts of it are too modern-looking for the historic district.
Others contend that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won't permit a Sponge Docks boardwalk because that would make it too difficult for boats on the Anclote to get through. Sponge boat captains dock their boats two abreast on the river's south side, while shrimpers dock their boats three abreast on the north side, leaving a fairly narrow channel in between.
A boardwalk could also interfere with dredging the Anclote, opponents say.
"They're going to shrink the river," said tugboat captain Sean O'Keefe, who owns a commercial fishing boat in Tarpon Springs. "My friends who have shrimp boats aren't going to be able to pass safely. Some aren't going to be able to pass at all."
"We could have saved a lot of money if they had listened to us at the very beginning," added longtime sponge diver Bill Gresko. He attended one of several city workshops on the project but felt that his input was ignored.
So far, the city has spent nearly $350,000 on designs and engineering for the whole plan. Tarpon commissioners say someone should be held accountable if some of that money was wasted on an unrealistic proposal.
"If this project was not permitable, how did we get to this point?" Commissioner David Banther wondered Tuesday.
However, city staffers and the project's architect say that throughout the process, they've communicated with the state and federal agencies that would eventually have to approve the boardwalk. Tarpon Springs hasn't yet submitted a final application seeking permits.
"You submit preliminary things, and they send you back changes," said LeCouris, the city manager. "In all the preliminary stuff, there's been no indication that there will be a problem permitting it."
Hoffman, the architect, said the engineering firm URS has been doing the marine permitting work for the project. He said the project team has already modified its plans based on concerns raised by the Corps of Engineers and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
For example, they changed the surface of part of the riverside amphitheater from concrete to wood. The proposed amphitheater would serve as a public gathering place in a spot that's already used for festivals.
"But it has to be a working waterfront. The dock extension is not supposed to be for dancing, so we had to change it back to wood," Hoffman said. "We were doing what we thought was reasonable, what we thought was within the rules. The corps is going to be the ultimate decider."
The Army Corps of Engineers confirmed they've been talking with the city, but they haven't made any decisions about the boardwalk.
"Right now, we're in the early stages of going through the review steps before a determination can be made," said corps spokeswoman Nakeir Nobles.
Some Tarpon commissioners sound like they're ready to simply move forward on the less controversial elements of the Sponge Docks project, like lights and landscaping and signage.
"Even if we can come to a consensus on a more common-sense approach, can we still complete it during the summer?" wondered Commissioner Townsend Tarapani. "In theory, you want the whole project to be done in the offseason."
Mayor David Archie says he's frustrated by "misinformation" that's being spread about the project. If there's no consensus, he said, Tarpon could spend its allotted Penny for Pinellas money on a different project — like a new fire station.
"We recognize the value of the Sponge Docks," the mayor said. "If there's any constructive thing that would help the dock area — something that we can agree on — let's move ahead. If we can't, let's spend the money somewhere else."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.