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State challenges dock permits

Pinellas County is seeking more authority from the state to manage its two aquatic preserves, but state environmental officials say the county has abused the power it already has by issuing improper dock permits. Officials with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have asked the governor and Cabinet to force Pinellas to develop a management plan for the two preserves, which include nearly all the water in and around the county. DNR officials also want the state to monitor closely the county's actions for the next year, claiming the county has done a poor job in the past.

But Pinellas County officials are bristling at the state's reprimands. Pinellas officials plan to meet today with DNR officials to work out a compromise before the debate reaches the governor and Cabinet.

"I think some of it is bureaucratic quite frankly," said Jake Stowers, assistant county administrator.

According to DNR, Pinellas County has misused its authority and violated the rules for aquatic preserves by granting individual dock permits to owners of town houses in Tierra Verde, which borders the Boca Ciega Bay Aquatic Preserve.

The Boca Ciega Bay Aquatic Preserve and the Pinellas County Aquatic Preserve together cover about 300,000 acres and include all the water surrounding the county and stretching to the county line.

Pinellas County, in fact, is the only county that has any power to issue dock permits in aquatic preserves. The governor and Cabinet in 1985 gave the county the power to issue single-family docks after county officials argued that different standards should apply since the area already had been urbanized. The power to grant permits for multifamily docks remained with the state.

In some cases in Tierra Verde, each resident owned a strip of land as narrow as 17 feet running to the water. By granting individual dock permits for several such strips of land in a row, the county in effect allowed one long dock to be built, according to a DNR report. Such docks should be considered multifamily docks, which the county has no right to permit, according to the report.

Stowers said county officials don't think the docks were improper because the townhouses were platted as single-family homes despite the fact that they share a common wall. But to satisfy the state's concerns, the county has changed its zoning regulations to label such townhouses as multifamily structures.

"DNR says they are multi-use docks just because they are so many feet apart. They are wrong," Stowers said. "They are truly platted single-family lots and houses that share a common wall."

But, Stowers added, "We have corrected that in our zoning. That will not happen again."

DNR officials also say the county has refused to develop a management plan for the two aquatic preserves, even though county officials agreed to do so under the 1985 agreement with the state.

County officials say the issue is just one of semantics. Regulations for the two aquatic preserves are contained in the county's comprehensive plan and related ordinances. Stowers said state officials want a separate document, but county officials say that would be a waste of time.

"I contend that it's a bureaucratic step to make Pinellas County put in another neat little binder something that says aquatic preserve plan," Stowers said. "I have land development regulations that far exceed anything required for aquatic preserves."

Pinellas County, in fact, has gone above and beyond the call of duty by developing the only map inventorying all the aquatic resources in the area, Stowers said.

The spat with DNR arose while Pinellas County was asking the state for more power to issue dock permits in the aquatic preserves. The reason, Stowers said, is that county officials think it is a waste of time for the county and the state both to do the necessary field inspections.

"We feel it's a better way to do it," Stowers said. "We're there anyway."

After intensive negotiations with county officials recently, DNR officials agreed to give the county another chance. A proposal that was to be presented to the governor and Cabinet on Wednesday would have extended the county's permitting authority for another year.

However, Pinellas County would have to develop a management plan within a month. And the county's performance would be monitored closely by DNR. If the county failed to perform according to DNR standards, the deal would be canceled, according to the proposal.

Pinellas County officials, however, aren't satisfied with the proposal. They have asked for the item to be pulled from Wednesday's governor and Cabinet agenda, and will negotiate further with DNR today.