Sunday, December 10, 2017
News Roundup

Tarpon Springs hits brakes on Sponge Docks improvements

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 [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.

Comments
Veteran 3B Evan Longoria as uncertain as anyone about Rays’ plans

Veteran 3B Evan Longoria as uncertain as anyone about Rays’ plans

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Uncertain with all the talk about potentially rebuilding if the Rays would go as far as trading franchise cornerstone 3B Evan Longoria?So is he."I don’t know what to think, really,’’ Longoria said via text message Sunday night as t...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Sunny day floods become new norm

WASHINGTON — The tide watchers start patrolling whenever the celestial forces align. From coast to coast, hundreds of tide watchers come out with their cameras to record the latest ‘‘king tides,’’ brief episodes of tidal flooding that could become th...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Tiny snowmen appear in Florida as Sunshine State gets snow

Tiny snowmen appear in Florida as Sunshine State gets snow

The "Welcome to Florida" sign in the northwest part of the state was covered in light snow as winter weather dipped into the Sunshine State. It was part of a winter storm that hit the Deep South over the weekend and left thousands of people without p...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Florida professional wrestler arrested, charged with battery of his wife, also a professional wrestler

Florida professional wrestler arrested, charged with battery of his wife, also a professional wrestler

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Wrestler Rich Swann is being held without bail in a Florida jail after he was arrested and charged with battery and false imprisonment. Swann, who is 26 and a former WWE cruiserweight champion, was arrested Saturday. According to ...
Updated: 3 hours ago

Updated: 3 hours ago
Getting around Cuban customs control

Getting around Cuban customs control

HAVANA, CUBA — Ernesto Machado will never forget that cold morning in 1968 at José Martí International Airport in Havana, when an immigration official seized his parents’ gold wedding bands and ripped up his passport."This is property of the revoluti...
Updated: 4 hours ago
FSU beats Tulane in Tampa, stays unbeaten in basketball

FSU beats Tulane in Tampa, stays unbeaten in basketball

Updated: 4 hours ago
Struggling Florida citrus growers face tough decisions

Struggling Florida citrus growers face tough decisions

WINTER HAVEN — Although the 2017-18 citrus harvest has barely begun, growers are already planning for the 2018-19 season, and they have critical decisions to make in the coming months that will affect next season’s crop and perhaps others in years to...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Bucs-Lions journal: Backup lineman was most unlikely of targets

Bucs-Lions journal: Backup lineman was most unlikely of targets

TAMPA — The Bucs’ unlikely comeback to erase a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter was capped by the most unlikely of targets. Tampa Bay tied the game when Jameis Winston threw a 2-yard pass to 305-pound Leonard Wester, a backup lineman who lined ...
Updated: 5 hours ago
New normal: Firefighting at Christmas; U.S. homeless population increases 1st time since 2010; Athletes, celebrities rally for bullied boy; more in U.S. news

New normal: Firefighting at Christmas; U.S. homeless population increases 1st time since 2010; Athletes, celebrities rally for bullied boy; more in U.S. news

CaliforniaNew normal: Christmas firefightingA flare-up on the western edge of Southern California’s largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday. Fire crews saved several homes as unpredictable gusts sent the blaze churning dee...
Updated: 5 hours ago