CLEARWATER — When an educational zip line course was proposed last year for the tree canopy of Sand Key Park, neighbors in the island's high-rise condominiums were outraged.
They said the zip line course, which required no substantial construction, would be an "environmental catastrophe." They accused Pinellas County of "prostituting" its gulf-front park.
Some worried visiting children would drop potato chips, attracting rats; others said baby birds would fly into the zip line. When the developer dropped the plan, neighbors celebrated "preserving the park."
Though they fended off the zip line course, they apparently missed a recent development: a plan to build a $250,000 headquarters for the Clearwater chapter of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 11-1 on one-quarter of an acre of Sand Key Park.
Last week the County Commission declared the land surplus and approved a lease with the flotilla.
The 1,200-square-foot headquarters will host boating classes, allow 24/7 access to the gulf for rapid search-and-rescue response, and "provide a highly visible presence" for the Coast Guard Auxiliary's volunteers.
The flotilla will pay $1 a year for the land, much less than the estimated $400,000 the zip line operator would have paid the county over three years.
Yet neighbors haven't criticized the construction project.
The zip line "would have invited as many people as could come. Those people were going to bring popcorn and hot dogs and whatever people bring, and some of that stuff would wind up feeding the rats," Sand Key Civic Association president Dick Jackson said.
The headquarters building "is going to be nonintrusive, and it won't ruin anyone's enjoyment," Jackson said. "The zip line course would have in about 800 ways."
The headquarters, renderings show, would resemble an elevated portable classroom, with a large wooden walkway, sewage and power hookups, and two 50-foot radio antennae. No environmental damage is expected from construction, save for the removal of a few invasive Australian pines.
Peter Ubillos, a flotilla staff officer, said the headquarters will be tucked away in an eastern corner of the park along Clearwater Pass. Its classes on marine safety and seamanship will likely attract fewer people than the zip line course.
The flotilla once held its classes at the nearby Clearwater Community Sailing Center before shifting to a local police station, Ubillos said. With the new facility on the waterfront, boats can be launched more quickly into the gulf.
Flotilla 11-1 has about 75 retired and civilian boaters and pilots who assist the Coast Guard. It has helped with two dozen search-and-rescue operations and flown more than 375 sorties with members' private planes.
Zip line course supporters, including county parks officials and local business owners, criticized last year's uproar over the course as NIMBY-ism masked as an environmental crusade. At an island town hall meeting, one resident drew a line in the sand, saying the island should have "no commercial activity except the shops that we need and the two hotels."
Some critics said the condo residents of Sand Key — one of Clearwater's monied enclaves and well-known among city leaders for mobilizing against perceived threats — were more interested in fending off tourists and visitors to what many on Sand Key regard as their neighborhood park.
Summer is a slow time for the snowbird-dense Sand Key, and several vocal Sand Key leaders said this week that they had little knowledge of the flotilla's plans. But with the lease approved, the flotilla has few remaining hoops to clear before construction begins.
When Sand Key leaders learned of the flotilla's plans, "they said we can live with the auxiliary building," said Paul Cozzie, the county's director of parks and conservation resources. "But no zip line."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.