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Tragedy on Anclote points to need to study no-wake zone

Tarpon Springs still is mourning the death of local businessman and former city Commissioner Michael J. Billiris on Aug. 10 in a boating accident on the Anclote River. But city officials should do more than mourn. They should consider joining other government entities in calling for a no-wake zone in a section of the river that has been notoriously hazardous for years.

If all boat and personal watercraft operators knew navigation rules and behaved responsibly on the water, a slower speed might not be necessary. But that isn't reality. Combine some boaters' ignorance of the rules and lack of responsibility with navigation challenges presented by the channel itself, and the need for action to protect the public is clear.

Billiris, 59, was piloting his 25-foot-boat in the channel near Anclote River Park when he crossed paths with another boat driven by 21-year-old John Palasky of New Port Richey. Investigators haven't announced their conclusions about what happened next, but Billiris' boat ended up out of the water wedged into mangroves. Billiris died in the accident. A witness said one boat accelerated and cut off the other.

Anclote River Park is on the north bank of the river at its intersection with the intake canal serving Progress Energy's Anclote power plant. The park draws lots of recreational boaters because it is near the mouth of the Anclote, providing ready access to the Gulf of Mexico, and it has public boat ramps. But commercial boaters coming from the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks to the east also access the gulf through the same channel.

Concern about creating too much of a slowdown for commercial boaters has previously discouraged Tarpon Springs officials from supporting a no-wake zone along the length of the river, though in 2001 they did approve no-wake zones in the river closer to the Sponge Docks.

But commercial boat traffic in the Anclote has declined in recent years. Meanwhile, boating accidents in the waterway near Anclote River Park have continued unabated, with several fatalities in the last decade and a host of injuries. The boat channel often is crowded with boats and personal watercraft, some driven by inexperienced or impaired operators. The channel also curves and has tricky currents, particularly when the power plant is drawing water. Park visitors entertain themselves by watching novice boat operators trying to navigate the area, and law enforcement officials witness risk-taking by watercraft operators on a regular basis.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office and Parks and Recreation Department have lobbied for a no-wake zone in the area for years, according to Times reports, but Tarpon Springs' opposition has prevented its establishment. The river is on the boundary between Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Tarpon Springs city commissioners can change that. Mayor David Archie already has expressed willingness, in the wake of Billiris' death, to take up the issue of a no-wake zone. His support for the idea hopefully will be echoed by his fellow commissioners. Designating a no-wake zone could be a life-saving move.

Tragedy on Anclote points to need to study no-wake zone 08/17/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 17, 2010 7:32pm]
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