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Pinellas to share Weedon Island cost

Three local governments will spend $2.1-million to rebuild a fishing pier, install a nature boardwalk and improve access roads on Weedon Island now that the state preserve is being turned over to Pinellas County's parks department.

The decision to spend Pinellas money on Weedon, however, spells the end to plans for the county to buy an American Indian burial site near St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

County Administrator Fred Marquis said Tuesday that work at Weedon will begin immediately after county commissioners approve a 50-year lease with the state next week.

The agreement, in the works for nearly a year, turns over control of the park to the county and paves the way for much-needed improvements, Marquis said.

The county expects 250 to 600 visitors a day at the 1,000-acre preserve. Under the agreement, Pinellas County, St. Petersburg and the Southwest Florida Water Management District each will contribute about $750,000.

That includes improving the main road and building a new park entrance, installing water and sewer lines, restoring the fishing pier, building new restrooms to replace portable toilets now used at the pier, building a second observation tower in conjunction with a boardwalk/nature walk, and building picnic shelters.

Government money will not pay for a planned $1.2-million interpretive museum at the park. A private group, the Friends of Weedon Island, is trying to raise money for that center. Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, a prime mover behind Weedon's transfer to the county, said that it will be tough to raise that much money privately but that this year's county budget does not include enough to help.

The rebirth of Weedon means an uncertain future for the Moog Midden site near the airport.

The land question has gone back and forth for more than a year as commissioners considered buying it, excavating the American Indian artifacts and then selling it for industrial development.

Leaders with American Indian groups, however, protested and said they wanted Pinellas officials to buy the land and preserve it.

The property was owned by Pinellas County until 1986, when it was sold to Moog Inc. for industrial development. Those plans fell through, and in 1990 Moog settled a lawsuit with GATC Partners by selling it 14 acres for $400,000.

The site, disturbed in two areas by illegal treasure hunters, contains at least two known burial sites. The word "midden" is used to describe refuse heaps left behind by American Indian cultures, but archaeologists say they can provide worthwhile insights into those long extinct ways of life.

A county consultant said the site is important enough to qualify for the National Register of Historic Places.

On Tuesday, commissioners agreed with Marquis' assessment that the county does not have enough money for both Weedon and the Moog Midden. They chose to drop the burial site purchase, although state officials already have approved a $120,000 archaeological grant that could be used if the county bought the property.

GATC Partners wanted $700,000 for the property, Marquis said.

Federal laws and county ordinances would protect the burial sites from development but not the entire midden. Marquis said he believes the integrity of the site could be protected by county officials who would have to approve any site plans for construction there.

Tim Johnson, the Clearwater lawyer who represents GATC Partners, said his clients "need to reassess their situation in light of the county's decision." The landowners had agreed to put any sale or development plans on hold while the county considered a purchase.

Lois Tomas of the Florida Indian Alliance said, "We're very disappointed in the county." She said the group did not know how it would proceed.