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Deeper channel could mean millions for Hudson

Years before Port Richey became the focal point of waterfront development dreams in west Pasco County, the talk of a deeper channel, larger vessels, commercial development, and environmental worries centered a half-dozen miles to the north in Hudson.

The talk continues today and will do so as long as Al Meyer can move his lips. Meyer, a Realtor, has chatted up the idea of dredging the 3.3-mile channel from the Hudson coast to the Gulf of Mexico for close to two decades.

"What would it mean to Hudson? I don't know how to put it in a few words," said Meyer, still the conversationalist at 75.

At one time, Meyer had a financial interest in a prosperous Hudson through a development company he owned with planner King Helie and others. That folded sometime ago, however, and Meyer now talks about a better Hudson because of civic pride.

The discussion will be getting louder soon. The state Legislature included $50,000 in the budget year beginning July 1 to examine the cost and benefits of dredging the channel. Pasco County must pay for the other half of the expected $100,000 study. The state money comes courtesy of the efforts of Sen. Jack Latvala, who met with Meyer and others in Hudson 10 months ago.

It remains to be seen if talk ever turns into action. Previous studies failed to generate a single shovelful of silt even though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated 12 years ago that the shallow channel cost the local fishing industry close to half-a-million dollars annually in down-time because fishermen had to time the arrivals and departures of their boats with high tides.

The channel is as shallow as 18 inches at times, and the hazardous rocks there have damaged recreational boats and sometimes prevented U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary members from responding to distress calls.

The dredging process never went beyond the talking stages, however, because the county was unable to get permission from state environmental regulators. There are concerns the dredging will destroy sea grass, a food source for species that support the fishing industry.

Also, the cost of the project, estimated from $500,000 to $3 million, depending on how the rocks and sand are disposed of, has never been addressed firmly, though Pasco County likely would pay for most of it.

To temper environmental concerns, Latvala said he envisioned a less-ambitious project in which the channel might be scalloped, effectively removing the highest points.

One of the biggest boosters for the effort is Mike Wells, now the property appraiser, but county commissioner from Hudson when the talks last heated up in the late 1980s.

"There are hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland off the coast of Pasco and they were complaining that we were going to kill 40 of them," said Wells.

Meyer now advocates a technology used in Louisiana and elsewhere in which dredged sand could be sprayed up to 300 feet from the channel. That lessens the impact on the nearby grass. The state Department of Environmental Protection, however, has questioned whether the spray disposal can be used in open water. Its previous uses have been in wetlands.

"There has got to be some kind of a balance," said Meyer, "between business and the environment."

A deeper channel could trigger a developmental boom in Hudson. It would bring bigger boats to the area and spur the type of restaurant and commercial activity along Clark Street that exists now in the sponge docks area of Tarpon Springs.

"It would bring millions, no, tens of millions of dollars in additional tax base to the county," projected Wells. "Everybody always preaches economic development, but boy, what a project."

A bigger and better Hudson is Meyer's vision also. Through the proceeds from the annual Hudson Seafest, Meyer and others installed sidewalks and palm trees along community streets.

He acknowledges some frustration at the inability to get the channel dredged.

"I'm afraid I'm going to die before it gets done," Meyer said Friday. "But, I won't give up on it. It's for personal pride for the community now."