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Overcrowding on the waterways

When a shopping center operator two years ago wanted to build more boat docks in a dangerously overcrowded stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway, Pinellas County nodded approval. Some elected commissioners feigned resignation, claiming the county's regulations left them with no other option. Commissioner Bruce Tyndall's comment then was typical: "I don't think we have to fill up unlimited water space with docks simply because it has commercial zoning, and I think we need to address that." But Tyndall voted approval anyway.

A funny thing has happened since that hotly contested dock construction debate. The same county staff that recommended approval of the ill-advised La Concha Plaza docks has drawn up a new set of dock regulations, and guess what's missing? The regulations, at least in the first public version, do not address reasonable limits to dock construction in commercial zoning. That omission might seem like administrative negligence, but the extent to which the status quo pleases the marine industry suggests something worse.

In Pinellas County, people who put up backyard residential docks face more restrictions on size and density than do commercial marina builders. As Tyndall pointed out in the La Concha hearing, the county's regulations don't restrict the number or size of docks in commercial zones. It is a backward approach to regulation, but one that, again, pleases the industry.

On Tuesday, the commission will be asked to adopt a new set of dock regulations, and administrators say they still are revising the language. If they are interested in responding to legitimate concerns about boating safety, environmental protection and the proliferation of docks, they will want to revise their first offering. If they are interested in responding to the oft-stated policy concerns of their elected commission bosses, they will want to insert stringent controls on density.

Sadly, the proposed regulations fail on those counts. In fact, the most progressive recommendations to date have come from outside the County Courthouse. Douglas Jones, a lawyer who lives in Largo and fought the La Concha expansion, has compiled a series of sensible proposals on how to improve dock regulations. He has proposed that tough safety language be added, that dock design be evaluated for safety, that the public get better notice of dock construction requests, and that the protection zones in waterways such as the Narrows be widened. Jones also recommends a restriction on dock density in commercial zones, limiting construction to 50 percent of usable water area.

"There is an issue of overcrowding coming," Jones says. "In Pinellas County, it's going to be here soon. We've got all this talk about concurrency and density and limitations on building on the land. But we don't have it on the water."

Jones is right, and it's too bad county administrators don't seem to understand. With La Concha, it took the Department of Natural Resources to do what was responsible and stop the docks from being built. On Tuesday, commissioners will have a chance to show whether they want to protect the waterways.