Eight years ago, Pasco County commissioners abandoned a push to slow boat traffic adjacent to Anclote River Park, fearing boaters would be confused and potentially endangered by the absence of a uniform speed limit along all of the channel to Tarpon Springs.
The state of Florida apparently doesn't share such misgivings.
Last week, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission denied a joint plan from the county and the city of Tarpon Springs to slow boat traffic along 1.2 miles of the channel. Instead, the state said Pasco could set a no-wake zone between the park's swimming area and a spot to the north near where former Tarpon Springs city Commissioner Michael Billiris died in a boating accident in 2010. Essentially, the state blessed the same confusing proposal from which Pasco commissioners previously retreated.
The legitimate fear now is that boaters heading to the Gulf of Mexico from Tarpon Springs' existing no-wake zone (stretching about a mile between the bridge at Alternate U.S. 19 and Marker 32) will gun their engines and either fail to throttle down in a timely manner as they reach the park or create sizable wakes as they slow to the new slower speed limit.
It is far from ideal, but it is an improvement. The new speed zone at least will control traffic at the intersection where boats departing the public ramps at Anclote River Park merge into the channel. Still, the shortened zone leaves risks along a congested portion of the river that is popular with pleasure boaters, larger vessels and smaller personal watercraft.
"This part of the river is dangerous,'' said Tarpon Springs police Chief Robert Kochen. "That whole portion of the river, in my opinion, needs to have some kind of restriction. This river needs safety measures.''
His disappointment is understandable, considering the state rejected the more extensive slow speed zone, in part, because it disputed the Police Department's documentation. That is hard to figure. The police, using state crash data, counted seven speed-related boating accidents in the channel over several years. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission put the number at two. Likewise, the city police studied the Mote Marine Laboratory's 2010 boating survey and found high-speed boat traffic in the unregulated speed zone at the mouth of the river. The state looked at the same boating survey and suggested that boat traffic speed is self regulated because of the congestion area.
Worse, the state criticized the city for counting boat traffic only on Memorial Day weekend and said its speed-detection device could have been faulty. Police Capt. Jeffrey Young, who actually counted the traffic in the channel that weekend, pointed out that the number of boaters was probably deflated because of rainy weather during the count. He also said he believes the speed measurements (379 of the 593 vessels were traveling faster than 25 mph) were accurate.
The Police Department acted in good faith, and to disregard the local law enforcement perspective on a public safety matter is imprudent. Unfortunately, neither Pasco County nor the city of Tarpon Springs is likely to appeal the decision to an administrative hearing, which means the new speed-limit signs are likely to be up by next summer.
At least a key part of the channel, nearest to the beach area at Anclote River Park, will have new speed guidelines. But the public would be better served if all vessels in the vicinity obeyed a consistent speed limit intended to protect boaters' own safety.