Editorial: Rejection of plan to fill Rocky Point lagoon was a defining grass-roots moment

A developer proposed dredging and filling three acres of open water in Rocky Point to make room for townhouses. [Times files]
A developer proposed dredging and filling three acres of open water in Rocky Point to make room for townhouses. [Times files]
Published July 6 2018

Count on people in Tampa to step up when someone threatens the things they hold dear.

In the case of a proposal to fill in a Rocky Point lagoon, and build expensive townhouses there, count on all kinds of people to step up — from kids with crayons drawing protest posters, to a man who traps crabs for a living, to professionals lending expertise toward a convincing legal objection.

Common sense and due process prevailed when the Tampa City Council voted unanimously to reject the idea. But looking out over the meeting room, where people spilled into hallways for a chance to say "no way" during a hearing that stretched into three hours, it was clear there was more at stake here than another bid by a developer to profit from a real estate investment.

RELATED COVERAGE City Council kills plan to to fill in open waters in Rocky Point

Dump soil in water to create new land so that affluent homeowners can have another choice in where to live? And in water that now affords scenic views that many can enjoy, where manatees and dolphins are known to swim?

As absurd as it sounds, the idea was actually moving forward, carrying a recommendation for approval from the city-county planning commission. Inexplicably, a tone deaf Florida State Fair Authority even offered to donate "hundreds of yards of fill dirt" after reading a news report about the project.

So people mobilized, at first the Rocky Point residents and businesses closest to the lagoon but soon people from across the Tampa area who were determined to send a message: This is not who we are.

It was in many ways a defining moment for Tampa, a signal that there will be no return to the days when drag lines tore through wetlands to create fingers of dry land for construction and navigable channels for boats, the days when dredging and filling reshaped local coastlines for the benefit of a few.

And it was reminiscent of another defining moment, last summer, when elected leaders struggled for direction. Before long, though, an overwhelming wave of grass-roots sentiment representing another broad cross-section of the community pushed a Confederate monument from the public square of the old courthouse downtown to a small family cemetery in eastern Hillsborough County.

The message then was clear, too: This is not who we are.

The list of all that’s wrong with the Rocky Point proposal is long. The legal underpinnings for denying it are spelled out in the successful City Council motion to deny it — among them, inconsistencies with the Tampa Comprehensive Plan and with a host of the city’s policies and objectives; the area is a manatee protection zone; the lagoon is not a man-made body of water; the project sits in a coastal high-hazard area and developing it would open the door to similar schemes with other submerged lands.

Why the planning commission and its staff couldn’t see this remains a head-scratcher. The City Council is taking steps to ensure that the commission is armed with clearer rules in the future to help prevent a recurrence of its folly.

Still, the strongest argument against the plan — also spelled out in the council motion — transcends all the finer points of law: "The property is water."

People got this. They rose up to fight any suggestion to the contrary.

One neighborhood meeting drew a crowd of more than 50. Before long, the grass-roots effort had attracted people whose only connection was their support for the manatee hospital at ZooTampa or their memories of the days when the waters off Bayshore Boulevard were so polluted no dolphins swam there.

They were old and young, Democrats and Republicans, a cross section so broad it’s hard to imagine this specific group coming together again for any other cause.

But in the end, the diversity of the group is just as heartening as the success of its campaign. Even in these often-divisive times, where politics and religion and identity drive painful wedges, people in the Tampa area showed they can find common ground.

And more importantly, they stepped up together — in the face of sometimes questionable leadership — to act upon it.