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Stricter rules are sought for county's waterways

Getting permission to build a dock or marina in Pinellas County would be more difficult if a proposal by Florida natural resource officials to superimpose stricter regulations over the county's ordinances is adopted.

The state Department of Natural Resources and environmentalists say Pinellas' ordinances don't go far enough to protect two aquatic preserves that cover nearly all of the county's salt waters.

But Pinellas officials disagree and characterize the dispute as bureaucratic.

Either way, Pinellas' waterfront residents and developers would pay for additional safeguards on waterways and seagrass beds.

On Tuesday, the Cabinet voted to start stripping Pinellas' control of the Pinellas and Boca Ciega Bay aquatic preserves. That will take about 90 days and allows appeals.

County officials said Wednesday they were surprised by the Cabinet's action because they thought they were close to getting an approved management plan for the two aquatic preserves.

But a letter from DNR Executive Director Virginia Wetherell said substantial changes would have to be made in the county management plan before the state could sign off on it.

The possible changes in the waterway development remain unclear, as does the county's next step.

But at least one environmentalist says the state rules should apply in Pinellas.

Florida Audubon Society senior vice president Charles Lee said Wednesday that the county has proposed a lenient management plan.

"From what I have been able to see of (Assistant County Administrator) Jake Stowers' attitude, they wanted to go too far" in giving developers flexibility to build, he said from his office in Casselberry, outside Orlando.

Stowers disagreed, saying the county was 98 percent done with a management plan that would have been acceptable to the DNR when the Cabinet voted. Other county officials said their ordinances are proper for the Pinellas waterways, which already are heavily urbanized.

"As far as I'm concerned, we're doing a hell of a job of management," said Will Davis, director of the county's Environmental Management Department.

Pinellas began managing the preserves and deciding who could build docks and marinas or dredge waterways in 1989, after an auditor general's report said DNR didn't have enough staff to oversee the regulatory process. Pinellas has seven workers in its Environmental Management Division who work on permits in the aquatic preserves, while DNR has one employee in its Tampa office who deals with aquatic preserves in West Central Florida.