CLEARWATER — One man called it a manipulative lie. A "travesty" and "environmental catastrophe," built on the "brutal rousting of animals." The same as park prostitution.
And he was just the first to speak.
The next dozen speakers at the Sand Key Civic Association's town hall meeting Monday night were no less candid: They said the proposal for a zipline course at Sand Key Park stank.
The course was pitched by developer Dev Pathik as a low-impact "ecological tour" for families and school groups, with ziplines linking lessons on seabirds and Australian pines. It would need no energy, and construction would mostly consist of rope bridges and utility poles.
Yet association members — who live in the island's sprawling condo high-rises — said they worried about the course's effects on the environment. Each speaker took great pains to label the course a risky disaster, earning whoops and applause from an overflow crowd of about 150, the association's biggest meeting yet.
Pathik, perhaps the only supporter in the room, said he was "scared to be here tonight." He said his canopy nature trail, proposed to be built within the park's looping road, would be safe and "eco-friendly." Traffic, he said, would consist of "fewer cars than we have all taken to get to this meeting."
"This is really a nature center that happens up in the trees," he said. "To get the attention of kids today . . . we have to create a fun experience."
Association members weren't convinced, deriding the proposal as an "amusement park."
Speakers were approved by association leaders before the meeting, and the crowd of onlookers was almost unanimously opposed. Only one man in the standing-room-only crowd on the Clearwater Community Sailing Center's outer deck raised his hand in support.
Dick Jackson called Pathik's promise an "Orwellian" lie, quoting the dystopian novel 1984. "This project," he said, "would destroy our park, perhaps for decades."
Terry Suchma, who said she is "known in birding circles as an expert in swallows," said it would devastate birds, interrupt migration and evict ospreys. She called the park a "sliver of sanity amid the madness of overzealous development." "Who will speak for the birds?" she said. "I will speak for the birds."
Lynn Summerson, a 10-year resident, said the tour's visitors would bring snacks and potato chips, attracting rats. He neglected to mention beach visitors have been bringing food for years. "Word will get out very quickly that there are rats in that park," he said, "and no one will stroll that park again."
JoEllen Farnham, an association spokeswoman, screened a YouTube video from a zipline course in England, where teenagers zoomed between trees, squealing with delight. A woman in the crowd said, "They don't even look at Mother Nature." A man added, "He learned a lot about birds, didn't he."
Members of the Audubon Society and Sierra Club said they were vehemently opposed, adding that the ziplines could impede or tangle fledgling ospreys.
Bill Bucolo, who said his sons enjoyed a zipline at his home up North, said the cables were noisy. He called the course "overdevelopment"
Two women listed deaths over the last decade from zipline accidents, including a seventh-grader killed on a North Carolina church retreat. Asked Cynthia Remley: "How many deaths do we have to experience?" Asked Mary Barcelona: "How much money can you put on a life?"
Pinellas County officials have supported the project, saying it could "inject life, color and energy" into the park. Members urged the Pinellas County commissioners and Clearwater City Council members in attendance to reject the course.
Pathik will meet with the county on Friday to discuss people's concerns, said Paul Cozzie, the county's director of parks and conservation resources. The company must finish a proposed design before officials can discuss it during a county work session next month.
"Some of the criticism seemed a bit misguided," Cozzie said. "There was some exaggeration there. I had to wonder if some of the speakers had actually been to the park."
Contact Drew Harwell at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.