When residents of the Clam Bayou Neighborhood Association addressed the St. Petersburg City Council last week, they wanted to talk about the city's plans for a bike trail through their neighborhood.
The trail is part of a Clam Bayou restoration project, a collaborative effort of the cities of Gulfport and St. Petersburg and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The original plan called for the trail to run along the north side of 35th Avenue S, south of three newly created ponds — which required the removal of dozens of trees. But without warning, the trail route was moved one block north to 34th Avenue. Residents on the south side of the street would lose 6 feet from their front yards and driveways.
And that has the residents up in arms.
Somehow, the bike trail issue got sidetracked at the council meeting, however.
Several council members seemed to be more interested in a hole in the fence behind the nearby Emerald Bay Apartment complex. Since the stand of trees was removed last fall, residents say, youths from the complex have been climbing over and through the fence and vandalizing homes on 34th Avenue S. A 14-year-old boy who lives there was beaten during a home invasion.
But this was never solely about the fence. It's about the highhanded way the city staff has treated the taxpayers with the most to lose.
• The trail was moved from 35th Avenue to 34th Avenue without proper notification of the residents most affected by the proposed change.
• When residents pressed for answers in October, they say they were told by city officials they had missed the opportunity for input during a Feb. 13, 2007, public forum (yes, 2007!). Yet in April 2010 the Police Department conducted a safety assessment of the bike trail route. And eight months later, after residents began complaining, the department did a re-evaluation of its survey.
So, clearly, final decisions were still being made.
• When residents asked for a copy of the survey, they were given a document that was missing five pages that said "a few changes to the 35th Ave. S route would make it a good choice" for the bike trail.
• On May 12, residents say, Susan Ajoc, the city's director of Neighborhood Partnership, told them that the Clam Bayou Neighborhood Association was inactive. Does that make their complaints invalid?
On Tuesday, Ajoc said she plans to meet today with Mary Weingart, the neighborhood association president.
• Days later, residents say, they were told by staffers that the city had vacated 35th Avenue S — which meant the trail could not be placed there because it was now private property.
But was the street really vacated? Vacations are approved by the City Council and require an ordinance and a public hearing, city Clerk Eva Andujar said Tuesday. "At this point I can't verify that a vacation has occurred."
Then by whose authority are locked gates in place at both ends of that street?
As near as I can tell, 35th Avenue S is being used as an access road for a city-owned waterfront house that has been leased to USF's marine science department. If the street has not been vacated, the gates are illegal and should be removed.
At last week's council meeting. Schaun Weingart, vice president of the neighborhood association, asked the council to delay the bike trail project until the full council can review the Police Department's safety assessment of the route.
Keep in mind, the original plan called for the bike trail to meander through the park and around the newly created ponds — along 35th Avenue. Why? So trail users could see the ponds and other native vegetation planted along the route, said Brandt Henningsen of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
On May 13, Mayor Bill Foster expressed concerns about the bike trail's location. But, that same day, Thomas B. Gibson, director of the city's Engineering and Capital Improvements, sent Weingart a letter saying the city had "authorized a contractor and city forces to proceed" with the bike trail.
Since then, survey stakes marking the trail have been put in along 34th Avenue, Weingart said.
At the council meeting, however, members Leslie Curran and Jim Kennedy had several questions.
"Where are we on this?" Curran asked.
"I'll get back to you," said Foster, who added that he had a few questions as well.
"If (the) council takes no action, will the project move forward? Will the cement be poured?" Kennedy asked.
Foster said Joe Kubicki, the city's director of transportation, had been out of town and another report is forthcoming.
"Until we can get back to council, the project is on hold," Foster said.
In the meantime, the Council of Neighborhood Associations and residents of two nearby condominium associations are looking into the matter.
Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 893-8874.