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Group opposes extending concrete trail along beach

(ran Beach edition)

A self-described group of "athletes and nature lovers" is hoping to halt the extension of a concrete trail along the city's beachfront.

"We think there are many ways to improve beach access that are beneficial to the city, visitors and residents that are less risky than a cement walk extension," said Lara Valverde, spokeswoman for Citizens for a Natural T.I. Beach, a group of about 30 residents who organized in response to a series of community forums held by the city to discuss the proposed trail extension.

Treasure Island plans to extend the trail by more than a mile and fund the extension with $380,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association as payment for a 1993 oil spill.

The goal, City Manager Ralph Stone said, is to bring visitors from the Pinellas Trail, across the new Treasure Island Causeway Bridge and onto the city's beachfront. The bridge, scheduled to open this summer, includes a 10-foot-wide recreational path.

"We'd like for Treasure Island to be a key place that people using the trail would take a trip to," Stone said. "We've got them in effect going into downtown, and now we've got to get them to the beach."

The oil spill money is being set aside to build the trail. Stone said the city doesn't know what the project will cost, but it probably will include a combination of concrete walkway and elevated boardwalk. In some areas on the north end of the beach, the trail may have to be built partially off the beach.

City officials want to complete project plans and designs this year and begin construction next year. It may have to be built in phases, depending on the availability of funds, Stone said.

"We just think there are alternatives that can achieve some really positive objectives to the city that don't involve a whole lot of risk," Valverde said. She wants the city to improve the concrete walkway and create more beach access points along the waterfront.

The group also is asking the state Department of Environmental Protection to consider studying the project's effects on the environment.

"We're looking for responsible and educated dialogue on this," Valverde said.

Stone said the state completed an environmental study before agreeing to the beach trail project. He also has had "some long- and wide-ranging conversations" with Valverde.

Valverde, a 38-year-old marketing executive, moved to a home along the Treasure Island beach in 1999. She helped create a Web site for the cause: Naturaltibeach.com.

On it's Web page, the group says, "Citizens for a Natural Treasure Island Beach believes that the beach is for everyone, and that we need to improve access to our most valuable natural resource. There are many positive ways to do this. However, we think that building a cement road or other structure on the beach is Simply a Bad Idea!"

The group provides several reasons why the city should reconsider the project. Among them are that the trail will disturb the natural beach environment, endanger sea turtles, draw visitors away from downtown and create security risks.

The group says a new trail could "create a "Carnival' atmosphere up and down the beach like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil."

Valverde said the trail also could be costly. Besides additional construction costs, she says annual maintenance fees will add up.

City Commissioner Richard Krause said he thinks the citizen group is made up of people who simply don't want the trail in their back yard.

"I think it would be an asset to the city, the businesses and guests," he said.

Mayor Mary Maloof also has been a longtime trail proponent.

"I think it would be a great addition to the city, but certainly it's not something that people are going to have forced on them," Maloof said. "I think the structures on the beach are what scare people, in addition to the privacy issue. I don't see that they have privacy now.

"Hopefully, we can still do something with that money to enhance the beach access points. It doesn't have to be a structured trail," she said.

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