DUNEDIN — Tears, threats to vote elected leaders out of office and loud refusals to give up erupted at City Hall on Thursday after city commissioners narrowly voted to forego dredging Lake Sperry and Cedar Creek.
Residents who live along the water bodies argue that public money should be used for the dredging because the entire city has contributed stormwater runoff that pushes silt and trash downstream and causes flooding.
But critics say the estimated $2.4 million dredging would benefit only a few waterfront homeowners who want the city to foot the bill for a naturally occurring phenomenon so they can go boating.
So the city hired Taylor Engineering to study Dunedin's role and responsibilities in the sediment buildup, determine what dredging parameters various state agencies will allow and draw up cost estimates.
In a report that Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski and some residents said contradicted several findings of one presented last year, the firm outlined the city's dredging options on Thursday.
After nearly three hours of listening to the presentation and then comments from some of the nearly 100 residents who packed City Hall, Bujalski made a motion to "do the right thing" — assist fellow residents — by having the consultant research a less expensive "middle of the road" option between a full dredging and doing nothing.
The residents living along Cedar Creek and Lake Sperry, she said, are taxpayers who are suffering, along with their property values, because of silt and other debris that the report showed has flowed from upstream. She noted that the city repaves city-owned roads in subdivisions that are considered private all the time.
Furthermore, she said, Dunedin has already completed more than $10 million worth of stormwater improvements further upstream and dredged in the mid 1990s to remove excess silt.
"Inaction, in my opinion, is not an option," Bujalski said. Mayor Dave Eggers seconded her motion.
However, they got no support from Commissioners Ron Barnette and Heather Gracy and Vice Mayor Julie Scales, who opposed Bujalski's motion. Then Scales made a motion to leave the water bodies alone and that passed 3-2.
They said their decisions were guided by science showing dredging would not alleviate problems with foul-smelling fecal contamination, debris or flooding, and that regulatory agencies would issue permits for at least part of the project for navigation purposes only.
Scales said she also could not ignore a warning by city attorneys, who said dredging might set a precedent regarding future dredging requests or affect Dunedin's standing in a lawsuit filed by Pirate's Cove Marina. The marina claims stormwater runoff from Dunedin and Pinellas County has clogged Curlew Creek, where the marina is located. The marina wants the city and county to help pay for dredging it.
"I don't think it's practical public policy to spend this kind of money on a narrow project for a narrow scope," Gracy said. "We are inferior to Mother Nature . . . What's to say 18 years from now we're not doing the same thing?"
They said they support future discussion, though, on maintaining mangroves and removing debris from the lake and creek.
The comments touched off a mini debate among commissioners.
Bujalski called Scales' motion, which subsequently passed by a 3-2 vote, "too closed-minded." Calling it a "quality of life" issue, Eggers said "your priorities are off" if this didn't rise to the top of the list.
Barnette testily retorted that his vote was based on what he thought was fair.
While commissioners were debating the motions, the room erupted into a shouting match as some residents pleaded with commissioners and others began to storm out, one woman in tears.
"You just destroyed the city!" one man shouted.
"Disgrace!" yelled another.
"Election Day will come," one woman said angrily.
"It's not over yet," another woman muttered quietly, buttoning her coat against the cold. "Just gotta keep fighting."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.