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Dunedin divided on causeway

In Clearwater, city commissioners want the road that leads to the beach to give a "sense of arrival" and be a "gateway to paradise."

Isn't a world-class beach worthy of a world-class entrance? they ask.

So, to match the picture-perfect Memorial Causeway, with its fresh flowers and neatly trimmed, green grass, Clearwater is building a $45-million high-rise bridge to replace the aging drawbridge.

And it's spending an additional $14-million on a traffic roundabout at the entrance to the beach, complete with a reflecting pond and possibly larger-than-life statues of dolphins.

In neighboring Dunedin, the 2{-mile causeway that leads to the state parks of Honeymoon Island and, via boat ride, Caladesi Island, looks much as it has for years.

Places to park and to launch boats along the causeway are not clearly designated. Food and drinks are sold out of a truck. A trailer serves as a kayak rental stand.

Large signs with bold letters warn visitors of the no-nos along the causeway: no alcohol, no pets, no campfires, no glass containers, no loitering.

Even so, it's a place where people can pull their vehicles up to the water and launch boats, set up barbecues and lawn chairs, and drink beer with little chance of being bothered by sheriff's deputies.

Only after the spur of the Pinellas Trail was added to the causeway last summer and the lack of bathrooms became more of a problem did the city and county share in the cost of building restrooms along the causeway.

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Some people like what one city commissioner calls the au naturel feel of the Dunedin Causeway. Others would like to see some changes.

"If we have some of the best beaches in the world, it would be nice to spend some money to beautify the causeway," said Maria Giasevits, a real estate agent with Viewpoint Realty International.

She is trying to sell a 56,000-square-foot former restaurant that has been empty on the south side of the causeway for more than two years.

A number of vacant parcels dot the first stretch of the causeway, along with restaurants, hair salons, bars and a marina.

Most of the land is taken by condominiums. Although about 1,500 people who live along the causeway are registered to vote, the population grows significantly in the winter.

The causeway ends at Honeymoon Island state recreation area, where visitors also can take a ferry to Caladesi Island State Park. Assistant park manager Steve Eiblsaid an average of 50,000 people visit the parks each month.

Harry Gross, Dunedin's leisure services director, says he would like to see the causeway itself turned into a "linear park," with shaded picnic tables, clearly marked driveways to the water and parking areas, and nicer landscaping.

The county owns most of the causeway and the city owns a small part of it. Al Bartolotta, a planner for the county, said no money is set aside to improve the causeway, but, "It's definitely something we could look at."

He said the county might be able to use drought-tolerant plants and encourage volunteers to keep up some additional landscaping.

The county, city and volunteers worked together to create a 4-acre park at the entrance to the causeway, on the northeast corner of Alt. U.S. 19 and Curlew Road. The park, scheduled to open in late January, is a quarter-mile long, between the Pinellas Trail and Alt. U.S. 19.

It has remnants of a 1924 brick road, benches, walkways and a water fountain.

A joint county-city effort would fit in well with a city beautification program started a couple of months ago, Mayor Tom Anderson said. "We've got the downtown in pretty good shape," he said. "Now we're going to work on the causeway."

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A project is in the works to renourish the beaches along the causeway, particularly along the south side. The Dunedin Beach Civic Association also recently led a drive to donate 10 wooden and metal benches, which the city will install along the causeway.

Such efforts are not enough for Steve Pantazes, who has owned the Sugar Reef Grill for 12 years. He would like to see long-term land use plans, architectural guidelines and jetties built into the water to catch sand along the causeway and on Honeymoon Island.

The land along the causeway would be dedicated to tourism, lined with nice shops, restaurants and entertainment.

City Commissioner Tom Osborne, who says he likes the causeway au naturel, wants to keep the current look.

Osborne says people who use the causeway should pay a small fee to be be used for some landscaping improvements and perhaps another public restroom.

Bob Bellavance, president of the Greater Dunedin Chamber of Commerce, said a county and city task force could look at ways to improve the causeway without spending $14-million to do it.

Bellavance said the state should consider leasing some of its land to a developer for a resort hotel.

"It's rustic and disorganized," Bellavance said of the causeway. "It has the potential of being an absolute showplace."