Early last week, County Commissioner Jack Mariano and challenger Bill Gunter sparred at a public debate over Mariano's staunch support of the SunWest channel dredging project in Aripeka. The debate migrated to an online message board this week, with Gunter questioning his opponent's involvement in the plan and Mariano defending the project as an economic booster.
The proposal calls for a 4-mile-long, 60-foot-wide channel to provide deepwater access to the Gulf. It would be attached to a future county park with seven boat ramps and 250 boat parking spaces. It also would be shared by the proposed 2,500-home luxury development called SunWest Harbourtowne.
Commissioners also have given tentative approval to a separate plan for Orlando-based Wake Park Project to build and operate a wakeboard park on a picturesque lake at the site.
The latest debate began with a letter to the editor in the Times from Pasco Democratic Party chairman Lynn Lindeman, who criticized Mariano for "cheering for an unneeded, environmentally damaging project."
After the letter was posted online, Gunter posted a comment saying the project "basically benefits two people: the wake board owner and the landowner whose property value will sky rocket once the taxpayer dollars are spent to widen the channel."
Gunter, a minister from New Port Richey, argued the area doesn't have enough population, infrastructure or hotels to support the project. "My opponent's infatuation with this project given the above is just plain strange," he wrote.
A day later, Mariano responded: "I don't blog but I have to make an exception to clarify what is really happening in the SunWest county park and SunWest Harbourtowne (development)."
Mariano said Gunter misconstrued the plan. He said the developer gave the county $3 million to develop the park as part of a settlement agreement. He also said the project would benefit all Pasco residents. "The sheer influx of tourism dollars will pump (up) this economy like never before."
He added: "I think a little review of District 5 will show we have several new hotels … who would love to see some investment to bring tourists to Pasco."
Mariano answered environmentalist critics by noting the channel's proposed alignment avoids some areas with lush seagrass. He also pointed to mitigation proposals to regrow seagrass in some areas. The channel has been tied up for months awaiting a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.