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Clearwater Pass jetty light plan remains a flicker

CLEARWATER — Shortly after a prominent developer crashed his boat into a jetty on Clearwater Pass and was hurled 35 feet through the air, the Clearwater Marine Advisory Board unanimously recommended the city add a light there.

Nearly three years have passed since that Nov. 8, 2006 vote and nothing has happened.

"I thought I had the commitment from the city to light it and it seems to be slipping through the cracks," said Frank Dame, the advisory board member who introduced the motion that city officials have seemingly ignored.

Dame resigned from the board the next month after he was appointed to the city's community development board. But with Gov. Charlie Crist calling on the Coast Guard to light the jetty at St. Petersburg's Albert Whitted Airport, scene of an Oct. 2 boating crash that killed 17-year-old Paige Alyssa Davison, Dame and at least one other former board member want Clearwater to follow through on their years-old recommendation.

"They just keep dropping the ball," said Mark Smith, who stepped down from the board in March 2008 partly because of the lack of action on the jetty. "I feel like going out there and doing it myself. It's an important thing."

• • •

The 4,000-foot jetty extends west from Sand Key Park and curves slightly to the south at the end. It juts about 7 feet above water. It has no lights, though there's one in the water near the end of the jetty.

Boaters are supposed to stay in the marked channel, which has its own lights, and consult local navigational charts, city and Coast Guard officials say.

Clearwater built the $2.6 million jetty in 1975 as part of an erosion control project. It has been the scene of several crashes, at least one of them fatal.

In 1998, two 27-year-old men were crushed when their powerboat slammed into the unlit jetty, spun in midair and landed upside down on rocks. The Florida Marine Patrol cited alcohol and inattention as factors and the Coast Guard said lights on jetties were necessary only if structures were deemed unsafe.

A 2006 wreck sent Clearwater Beach developer Roland Rogers through the air and onto rocks. He got 15 stitches on his forehead and another 30 on his knee, though he's fine today. Rogers blamed himself for the crash and later apologized, but the accident prompted the marine advisory board to discuss lighting the jetty on at least two occasions that year, Nov. 8 and Dec. 13.

During the Dec. 13 meeting, city harbormaster Bill Morris said a light could be mounted at the end of the north jetty. According to minutes from that meeting, Morris said "the city is approaching the Coast Guard to install it."

There has been no mention of a light since.

• • •

The Coast Guard said it isn't responsible for installing the light; Clearwater is. The Coast Guard just doles out the permit.

Petty Officer Robert Simpson said he wasn't aware of any applications from Clearwater.

Reached Wednesday, Morris said "within a month or so" of the December 2006 board meeting, he met with two Coast Guard officials on Sand Key. Though the Coast Guard felt the channel was adequately lit, "one of the things that they discussed was putting a light close to the end of the jetty," Morris said.

Plans never materialized and the city didn't follow up, he said. Morris can't explain why. "Just no further action was taken," he said. The marine advisory board will monitor the situation at Albert Whitted Airport before exploring the next steps, he said.

Simpson said the governor's request for a light on that jetty hinges on the outcome of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's investigation, which is still open.

There have been no other crashes at the Clearwater Pass jetty since October 2006, Morris said. "I feel it's safe," he said. "I used to work this area with the Coast Guard, and I've been in and out of that pass during the night and during the day."

What about recreational boaters or tourists? That's the question from Tim Smith, who works at the Clearwater Beach Marina.

"There's a lot of people out there that don't know what they're doing," he said. "And not only that, they get really drunk while they're out there. That's just the God's honest truth."

The former advisory board members said Morris is missing the point.

"We're talking about people's lives," Mark Smith said. "They can't even put up a sign or something?"

"What's it going to take?" Dame asked. "Somebody's going to get killed and then the city is going to be responsible for ignoring those recommendations."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

By the numbers

4,000 feet

Length of the jetty.

7 feet

Height above the water.

$2.6M

Cost of the jetty in 1975.

45 stitches Clearwater developer Roland Rogers got 15 stitches in the head and 30 in his knee after a powerboat collision with the jetty.

0 lights There are no lights on the jetty; there is one in the water.

Clearwater Pass jetty light plan remains a flicker 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 4:55pm]

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