Unsafe conditions close dock, boardwalk at Upper Tampa Bay Park

Jena Higgenbothem was going to stroll along Double Branch Creek one recent afternoon when Hillsborough County's budget crisis stopped her cold.

A barricade blocked the path to the scenic waterfront boardwalk at Upper Tampa Bay Park. "Dock closed," a sign said.

"I was kind of depressed, because I like walking out on that," said Higgenbothem, 18, a recent Sickles High graduate heading to Hillsborough Community College. "It's really pretty."

The 750-foot boardwalk, a popular fishing spot at the northern end of Tampa Bay, will be closed until further notice. Its support posts are deteriorating, and the county doesn't have the money to replace the walkway.

Unsafe conditions this month also prompted county officials to close the canoe launching dock at the park, which is south of Hillsborough Avenue, just east of the Pinellas-Hillsborough county line. The park's nature trails, picnic shelters and nature center remain open.

The canoe launch was built to rise and fall with the tide, but park officials said it has come loose from the dock leading to it. Some of its support posts also are damaged.

While the dock is closed, paddlers and kayakers have no place at the Upper Tampa Bay Park to launch.

"The first week, they were upset," said Skip Denham, the general manager for Upper Tampa Bay Park.

On a typical weekday, the canoe launch typically draws 12 to 20 people, mostly kayakers. Another 15 to 30 anglers might fish from the boardwalk, which runs along the bank of Double Branch Creek. And the park itself draws a total of 350 to 400 visitors.

On weekends, Denham said, those numbers double, with many visitors coming from neighboring Pinellas County.

Repairs to the canoe and kayak launch were already planned, and the new dock will be an improvement over the old one, officials say.

The county plans to spend $15,000 on a new dock that will allow disabled paddlers and kayakers to use handrails to pull their craft out of the water, onto a set of rollers and up onto the dock where it would be easier to get in and out.

The county is looking at installing the handicapped-accessible docks at about a half-dozen parks around Hillsborough — Camp Bayou, Trout Creek, E.G. Simmons, Riverview and Alderman's Ford — but Upper Tampa Bay will be first.

"We want to give it a shot at Upper Tampa Bay and see what happens, see how it holds up and see how people like it," parks department spokesman John Brill said. "It looks like a pretty neat little system."

The new launch could be open in the next three months, with the money for the dock coming either from an existing repair and replacement fund or a boating improvement fund that gets its money from a portion of the boat registration fee charged by the state.

The boardwalk is another story.

It was built in 1981, rebuilt in 1987 because of storm damage and repaired in the mid 1990s.

Replacing the boardwalk could cost an estimated $500,000. That's too much to be covered in one phase by the parks department's budget for repairs, renovations, replacements and maintenance.

"There's not a lot of money laying around" to do a replacement project of that size on short notice, Brill said. "We're going to get to that when we can, the best we can."

But with property values falling, county officials are bracing for two years of declining revenue from property taxes. And that has led them to propose a budget that would cut nearly $133 million from the county's $1.7 billion annual operating budget.

The lack of available funds make it impossible to say when the boardwalk might reopen.

That's too bad, said Gerrard Ramjattan, 43, who was fishing in Double Branch Creek last week with his 9-year-old son Ray and Ray's friend, Christopher Valle.

The boardwalk can be a good fishing spot in the winter, he said.

Ramjattan has fished at the park for seven years and has caught redfish, snook, trout, sheepshead and black drum from the pier when the weather turned cool. He has also seen dolphins and manatees swim by the boardwalk.

"It enables people to see the natural beauty of what's in this area," he said of the walkway. With it closed, "what are we going to be left with?"

About the park

Location: 8001 Double Branch Road, south of Hillsborough Avenue, just east of the Hills-

borough-Pinellas county line

Size: 596 acres on a peninsula; 2,144 acres including all freshwater ponds, salt marshes, oyster bars, salt barrens and mangrove forests

Miles of shoreline: 5

Amenities: Picnic shelters,

playground, nature trails,

air-conditioned nature center with displays of native animals, maps and exhibits.

Unsafe conditions close dock, boardwalk at Upper Tampa Bay Park 08/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 26, 2009 1:27pm]

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