On to Plan B to restore fort at Fort De Soto Park

The $1.1 million restoration of the old fort at Fort De Soto was to be finished by March but got bogged down by erosion. New plans await state approval.

SANDRA J. GADSDEN | Times

The $1.1 million restoration of the old fort at Fort De Soto was to be finished by March but got bogged down by erosion. New plans await state approval.

The $1.1 million project was controversial from the start.

Back in 2007, then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed most line items in the parks category of the state budget. But because he let stand $500,000 to restore the fort at Fort De Soto Park in his home county, it raised a few eyebrows.

It also caught the attention of TaxWatch and made the nonprofit group's annual turkey watch list. That group defines a turkey as a spending project that averted established review, was not recommended by a state agency, surfaced late in the legislative session, does not benefit the state or is steered to a specific group.

Despite all that turkey talk, restoration was needed.

The fort has a special place in the county's history. As far back as 1849, a young Col. Robert E. Lee was part of a team of U.S. Army engineers that surveyed the strategically important barrier islands at the mouth of Tampa Bay. Fort De Soto was built during the Spanish-American War and was an outpost of Fort Dade on nearby Egmont Key, but the weapons there were never fired in combat. The fort was abandoned by the military in 1923 and later became part of the crown jewel in the county park system.

By 2007, palms and strangler fig trees were growing in, on and around one of the former gun batteries. The roots were causing structural damage to the historic site.

So the county combined money from the state and federal governments and the Penny for Pinellas program and hired Caladesi Construction to remove the trees.

The work finally began in November. The grumbling started in late March — when the project was supposed to be completed. Some visitors question the cost, slow pace and what appear to be serious flaws in the restoration effort.

The contractor removed all the trees and plants around the old fort, then put new vegetation in the sand.

In Flori-duh.

Then more than a month ago, after a series of torrential rains, erosion became a major problem. Sand is being washed away and is now sitting in piles in several spots around the fort.

Just think. The rainy season hasn't started yet. It could get much worse.

"The design looked good on paper, but they (Caladesi) have a serious erosion issue," said Jim Wilson, the park's supervisor since 1988. "The contractor is working with Pinellas County's Building Department. They've had a problem with the cocoa mats."

Cocoa mats, which resemble burlap bags, were supposed to hold the sand in place until the plants could grow in. But it didn't work. So the county has been working with the contractor on a revised plan.

"Since the project is in a coastal area, we have to get special permits" through the state Department of Environmental Protection, said Brian Mowry, project supervisor in the county's construction division. Once the permits are approved, he said, the county will give the contractor authorization to proceed.

The new plan is to remove the plants, add sod, then replant, said Mowry.

"The erosion issue is something that couldn't be anticipated," he said. "We really want to fix it because we don't want to leave any problems for the park to maintain."

In the meantime, visitors should not venture into the fort as there are hazards on the site. For one, railings along the top of the fort won't be put in place until the erosion issue is resolved.

The fort has been "closed" since October. But that didn't seem to stop the steady stream of visitors Thursday afternoon who walked past construction signs, torn fencing and other notices to venture into the historic site.

Since nobody from Caladesi is on the site now, visitors feel free to explore.

"It is still a construction site," said Wilson, adding that several times a day, he has to ask park visitors to leave the area.

"When the contractor took it over, it is no longer our responsibility," said Wilson, who added that he just doesn't have the manpower to monitor the fort.

The new modification means the official reopening of the fort will be delayed. But if that's what it takes to get it right, Wilson is content to wait.

"If it means closing the facility longer, we're fine."

Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at sgadsden@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8874.

On to Plan B to restore fort at Fort De Soto Park 06/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 4, 2011 5:31am]

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