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Project offers safety at a cost

A county water main project could increase safety, but in the process, cost a community its ambience.

Charles Yamokoski says he moved to Indian Springs Estates near Hamlin Boulevard and Brewster Drive, in large part, because of its seclusion. Here, residents open their front doors to natural springs and wetlands. Old oak trees shadow narrow paths to a handful of stately homes.

A retreat to a cozy nature.

Remington and Judy Dean bought a home here last fall. Mrs. Dean resigned as a Largo commissioner because the move put her outside the city limits.

"My husband and I have always liked living in a very natural environment," Mrs. Dean said. "So this is just a perfect house for us."

"There's nothing like this in Pinellas County," her husband said.

Seclusion, however, has its drawbacks.

Some houses have low water pressure. Others are so far away from the closest fire hydrant near the entrance to the development, firefighters would be hard-pressed to save them if flames broke out.

The county wants to install a water main that would increase pressure and allow a fire hydrant to work effectively. That means digging up yards and cutting down trees.

Residents say no way. They want the water main, but not on the county's terms. Aside from aesthetic concerns, they fear the construction will disturb wetlands and natural springs lying in their path.

"We're certainly not opposed to the project, we want the project," Remington Dean said. "We just feel that they're approaching the project from an irresponsible standpoint."

Vic Formby, county director of engineering for utilities, says the proposed plan is the best way. The water main would run through public utility easements between Yamokoski's and the Deans' homes and along Spring Street through the development. At one point, the line would cross one resident's property, so the county is waiting to secure an easement from that person. The project is in limbo until that happens, Formby said.

If the project goes forward, yards that lie partly on public ground in the water main's path would be dug up and their landscapes later restored, Formby said. Trees may be chopped down. Concerning the wetlands area, workers would drill a pipeline underneath the protected areas and avoid disturbing them, Formby said.

Any other route would force the county to acquire land from property owners and cost more time and money, Formby said. There is no cost estimate available because the project is only in the preliminary stages, he said.

Neighbors from 10 homes met with Formby recently but walked away unsatisfied. They don't think the county will avoid the wetlands or a historic rock formation on the site and are not pleased with the possibility of some landscapes being torn apart.

"It seems like everywhere there are trees, they aim for them," Yamokoski said.

Dean questioned why the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud, granted the county a waiver to follow the proposed pathway despite the wetlands.

"If any of us wanted to do anything out there, we'd have to do an environmental impact study," Dean said. "They have a way of reciprocating," he said of governmental bodies.

Alberto Martinez, an environmental scientist with Swiftmud's regulation department in Tampa, said his agency did a site inspection and was satisfied when the county said that wetlands would not be disturbed and that silt screens would be used to protect areas around the trench from erosion.

"With anyone under those conditions, provided that they followed the rules, a waiver would be granted," Martinez said.

After receiving complaints from residents, Martinez said, Swiftmud is keeping an eye on the project.

Either way, something must be done to upgrade water conditions. According to Yamokoski, Indian Springs residents were told last year their homes were too far away from a fire hydrant to satisfy safety codes. They need an additional hydrant in the development, but it would be useless without the water main to increase water pressure, Yamokoski said.

Fire protection is an issue, Dean said, but so is the environment.

"We're here in this neighborhood for a reason," Dean said. "We enjoy it this way. We're just very upset that they are uninterested in preserving our amenities."

His wife says she looks back on her Largo City Commission days and understands now how it feels to be on the opposite side of the dais: "It is very frustrating being on the other side and trying to get people to listen to you."