SunCruz proposes deal with state DEP

Published Oct. 8, 1997|Updated Oct. 2, 2005

SunCruz is willing to dock its boat in a different spot, adjust its twice-a-day cruises to the tides and invite the state Department of Environmental Protection to oversee its operation.

Now, SunCruz attorney Robert Merkle says, the company is waiting for DEP to respond to its proposal.

Rick Garrity, district director in the DEP's Tampa office, said his staff is reviewing the SunCruz plan, which Merkle submitted Monday. DEP could decide today whether to accept the conditions.

The company's proposal, which also calls for SunCruz to dredge the basin where the gambling ship is moored, could resolve the dispute between DEP and SunCruz. A court hearing on a DEP injunction request is set for Oct. 16.

If DEP and SunCruz reach an agreement, the boat could resume its twice-daily gambling cruises. If DEP turns down the casino boat company, SunCruz IV will not sail again until after the hearing, SunCruz dockside manager Tom Hartley said Tuesday.

DEP _ joined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and, most recently, the Florida Department of Community Affairs _ has been trying to stop SunCruz IV from stirring up silt in the Crystal River. The dispute began days after the casino boat opened for business less than three weeks ago.

The operation shut down Sept. 30, when the Florida Marine Patrol arrested a SunCruz IV captain for damaging the river, but cruises resumed over the weekend.

On Monday, as marine patrol officers hovered near the casino boat preparing to take more water samples, SunCruz unloaded its passengers and canceled its morning cruise. The ship hasn't sailed since Sunday night.

"We do not know why they're doing this to us," said Hartley. "We're doing the same thing on this river that everyone else does."

Merkle outlined his proposal to the DEP in a letter to Kirby Green, deputy secretary of the agency. It calls for mooring the boat in an area of the yacht club dock where the water is 8 feet deep. The boat now docks in 5 feet of water.

He also proposes a flotation collar with a floating boom and screen to collect any silt the boat kicks up.

"We would, of course, expect and welcome your department's oversight and approval of this procedure," Merkle wrote.

In his letter to DEP, Merkle requests a consent order that allows the casino boat to operate and also allows the company to dredge the basin near the yacht club.

"In this manner, we can eliminate your concerns for any potential damage to the environment as, as you know, dramatically improve the ecological quality of the basin," Merkle wrote.

On Monday, Merkle said SunCruz has already agreed not to operate at mean low tide, and the company will adjust its cruises by 30 minutes to an hour to avoid low water levels.

Last week, Garrity said even a one-hour wait is insufficient at low tide.

On Monday, Merkle said he would prefer to work out an agreement with the DEP instead of facing Circuit Judge Patricia Thomas. When the two sides met Thursday and decided to delay the hearing until Oct. 16, Merkle accused Thomas of bias against him.

He also asked the judge to recuse herself from the case, and she refused.

Clearly, Merkle said, he would rather not work out the SunCruz/DEP situation in Thomas' courtroom. "But," he added, "I don't know if that's going to be possible."

Last week's court hearing came one day before the DCA joined the handful of government agencies trying to stop the operation. The DCA deemed the casino boat to be a development of regional impact, which subjects the operation to more stringent state review.

Word that the boat is a development of regional impact arrived in a violation notice, sent because the companies had failed to respond to a DCA monitoring letter sent in August.

The notice was sent on Friday to River Marina Enterprises, the Clearwater-based company that leases its yacht club dock to SunCruz, and Paradise of Port Richey, which operates the SunCruz casino boat line.

"If you can't draw the line in an Outstanding Florida Water in critical manatee habitat, where can you draw it?" said Jeff Bielling, DCA project manager.

Merkle said the DCA's violation notice is further evidence that state agencies are politically motivated against the gambling ship.

"They're mounting a full-court press, hoping we'll cave to their pressure," Merkle said.