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Park under fire after reports of transients

After a tip from a middle school volunteer, Madeira Beach and the school system are looking at options for the park.

Bicentennial Park apparently has become a home to transients _ a situation that has placed the future of the city park in doubt.

The 1-acre waterfront park on the southeast side of the Tom Stuart Causeway is maintained by the city but owned by the Pinellas County School Board, which has leased the land to the city for $1 a year since 1975. The current five-year lease expires in June 2001.

The park's natural shoreline is frequented by Madeira Beach residents whose dogs like to swim in the saltwater to remove fleas.

It's also a popular fishing site.

The nearby Madeira Beach Middle School sometimes uses the park for activities and environmental field studies.

Now, spurred by a complaint from a school volunteer, city and school officials are discussing whether use and control of the park should be changed.

Last week, the City Commission indicated the city would return the park to the school system, if requested.

No such request has yet been made.

"I was not aware of the park being a big problem," said City Manager Mike Bonfield, who ordered a cleanup and increased police patrols.

He plans to meet with school officials this week to discuss the future of the park.

Ellis Leeder, an environmental program volunteer at Madeira Beach Middle School, first raised awareness with a letter to the school's principal, Brenda Poff.

"I have found that the park is a magnet for undesirable activity such as the school cannot tolerate," Leeder wrote.

He said he found a "makeshift bed" and condoms in a growth of trees, cooking grills filled with trash, discarded beer cans throughout the park, and gang signs painted on a sea wall.

Since Leeder's complaint, the city has cleaned out much of the undergrowth, removed the grills and asked the Sheriff's Office to patrol the area.

The city's new community policing officer, Tony Peyinghaus, said his office has had few complaints regarding the park, but is checking it regularly.

A city ordinance prohibits people from sleeping in public areas, including parks.

Leeder, who describes himself as "the kind of guy who notices this stuff," is lobbying for the school system to take back control of the park.

"It's a beautiful piece of property that could be part of the school's environmental program," he said.

But Poff said the school, which recently built a dock on its own waterfront property, does not use Bicentennial Park as much as in the past.

"I was not aware there was a problem there," she said. "Whenever we plan to use it, we send someone over there to check it first. We've had no reports of vagrants."

On Monday, a man who identified himself as Sandy Wolff of Chicago was sitting in the park on a concrete pad shaded by a grove of Australian pines.

Surrounding him were his backpack, an opened loaf of bread, jars of jelly, a can of beans and his bicycle, loaded with another backpack stuffed with clothing.

Wolff said he had been at the park for two days and "in the area" for a month.

Wolff said he was asked to leave by a police officer earlier, but he had returned to fix his bicycle.

"I'm a crazy person, you know," he said repeatedly. "I almost died last year, and I decided to ride my bike around the country."

Bonfield, Madeira Beach's city manager, and Poff, the school principal, scheduled a meeting to discuss the park.