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Pier seen as path to preserve land

Dave Walker cringed when he first saw the request to build a 756-foot pier through mangroves and wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico.

But the county's environmental manager has come to see the project as a pleasant surprise.

It's not every day a landowner agrees to turn his waterfront property in Florida into a conservation area even though it's already zoned for condominiums.

Yet that's exactly what Warner Alexander, a retired lawyer living in St. Croix, says he wants to do with 12 acres of lushly vegetated land he owns in Tarpon Springs.

The pier, he says, will help him and his wife, Jane, get into the mangroves to pick up trash. County commissioners will consider Alexander's request at a public hearing Nov. 25.

He already has permission from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the city of Tarpon Springs to pursue the project.

The property will not be open to the public, and boats will not be allowed to dock at the end of the pier, which will poke from the mangroves into the Gulf of Mexico.

The only structure other than the pier will be a small retirement home for the Alexanders on the east side of the property.

"When I see a nearly 800-foot dock through mangroves, I go, "Oh God, no way,'

" Walker said. "But then you look at what he's doing and how he wants to be a good steward of that land.

"You see property like that, and you think, "Somebody's really going to come and max that out.' But he doesn't want that," Walker said. "He wants to make sure it stays natural."

Alexander, 69, granted the county a conservation easement so that future property owners also cannot have an impact on the mangroves, which take up about half his property.

The easement prohibits the installation of utilities, any attempts to change the wildlife habitats and the construction of anything through the mangroves but the pier.

Condominium developers north and south of the property had considered building on the east end of it at one time, but ultimately decided to sell the land.

Alexander's son, who lives in New York, suggested his parents look at the property as a possible retirement spot, Alexander said.

The family examined the piece several years ago and in November 1995 bought it for nearly $841,000, according to county records.

"We looked at it and loved it," said Alexander, a supporter of the Nature Conservancy. "It's a beautiful piece of property, hidden away. Nobody knows it's there."

Alexander hired Peacock and Associates of Palm Harbor to perform a wildlife survey of the land this summer. Findings included 34 species of birds, 18 of which may nest at the site.

"He wanted to know what it was he was going to be responsible for, not because some law said he was responsible for it, but because he feels responsible," said Tom Cuba, owner of Delta Seven Consulting in St. Petersburg, which drafted the conservation easement.

Warner and Jane Alexander have walked around the edges of the mangroves picking up discarded cans, bottles and even life vests, Alexander said. The pier, which will be between 3 and 4 feet wide for most of its length, will have several sets of short stairs, allowing them to clean up the inside of the thicket as well, he said.

County environmental officials slogged through the area with Alexander's engineers and consultants looking for a way to wind the pier through the mangroves with little damage to plant life, Walker said.

About 120 small mangroves will have to be cut down for the pier, he said.

In return, Alexander is removing exotic plants from the rest of the property and planting native vegetation. The exotics will be removed carefully, not with bulldozers, Cuba said.

And the pier will be built slowly and without heavy equipment: Builders will stand on the first section while constructing the next.

"If we have a boardwalk, we can access it and keep it clean and see the sunset," Alexander said. "It's going to be a wonderful project."

Residents of the Island Club condominiums to the north are a little annoyed that county environmental officials seem to support Alexander's pier, said resident Bob Ward. He said the Island Club's request for a smaller pier through mangroves several years ago was denied by the county.

When Ward mentioned that to county officials, they said they could not find the Island Club's earlier application and urged the development to apply again, he said.

Residents are pleased that Alexander does not plan to build condominiums, he said.

"You hate to see a nice piece of property go, but if it has to go, it seems like it's going in a nice way," Ward said. "Hopefully, this guy will keep a nice piece of property nice."

Most of the initiatives Alexander has taken to preserve the land have been voluntary, said Cuba, the environmental consultant.

"He's doing all kinds of things that really are the types of things important for us to learn to do as a nation," he said. "When we talk about a balance between man and nature, it's not necessarily this intense of a project, it's this intense of an attitude that really is needed."

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