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The forces behind the New Port Marina want slips closer to the public boat ramp. That's seen as a slippery slope.

Afternoon rain clouds shaded David Cohalla from the summer sun as he baited his hook at the Salty Sol Fleischman Boat Ramp. The 19-year-old Brandon resident and his family have used this Gandy Boulevard dock for as long as he can remember. When he's not out boating with his grandfather, Cohalla comes to cast his line from the shore.

"Growing up, when we came out here on Saturdays, just one or two trailers would be parked on the grass," Cohalla said. "Now, if you're not here early, you're not going to find a parking space."

Plans by a Tampa developer could make finding a spot, on or off the water near the dock, more of a challenge.

As part of its plans for a large residential development, EcoGroup has a deal to lease land from the Tampa Port Authority to build 99 new boat slips and replace 159 slips at the former Imperial Yacht Basin.

But EcoGroup wants to change the lease to build the private slips closer to the public boat ramp than originally planned, though it hasn't submitted that request formally. Five new slips, the closest 115 feet from the boat ramp, would be added.

Critics have already lined up.

Parks and recreation officials with Hillsborough County and Tampa cite overcrowding and dwindling access to public boat ramps as reasons to reject EcoGroup's modifications. The county owns the Salty Sol and partners with Tampa to operate and maintain it.

The county's Marine Law Enforcement Citizens Advisory Committee says that what EcoGroup wants to do poses a threat to safety.

"If the space to maneuver vessels is reduced because of marina docks and slips close to the boat ramp, the situation will get worse and cause increased wait time for boaters and result in short tempers," William J. Launikitis, chairman of the advisory committee, wrote to the county administrator. "Obviously, this could increase law enforcement issues."

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The City Council signed off in 2005 on EcoGroup's plans to develop the old Hendry shipyard into a residential and commercial waterfront community. Named New Port Tampa Bay, it will have 1,750 townhomes, condominiums and apartments and a community park.

Twin 16-story condo towers will rise during the first two phases of construction. EcoGroup also plans to extend the Friendship Trail onto its property. Adjoining restaurants, shops and office buildings will round out the development.

The 52-acre community could take up to nine years to fully emerge.

As part of the project, the former Imperial Yacht Basin will be transformed into New Port Marina. EcoGroup has begun that process by making some improvements to the Salty Sol public boat ramp.

The developer replaced a 30-foot section of the failing seawall east of the boat ramp. EcoGroup has other things planned for the public portion of the waterway: It wants to add 19 boat trailer parking stalls and 13 single vehicle parking spaces. The work is expected to be done by the end of 2008.

"As one of the most heavily used boat ramps in the Tampa Bay area, additional boat trailer and vehicle parking will help to improve parking and likely decrease the queue time on peak usage occasions at the boat ramp," EcoGroup wrote in boat ramp improvement plans given to the county.

Florida has surpassed Michigan as the state with the most registered boats, according to Tampa officials.

More than 90 percent of the boats registered in Hillsborough County can be carried on trailers, and the number of registered boats continues to increase.

"As waterfront areas are converting from marine use to residential, public access will continue to be an issue statewide," Tampa Parks and Recreation Department director Karen Palus told Hillsborough parks director Mark Thornton in a letter, urging him to oppose EcoGroup's marina modifications. "There are few opportunities to acquire additional lands for future ramps. We must protect any opportunities we now hold for expansion and preservation of public access."

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Al Steenson, president of the Gandy Civic Association, has several concerns about the project.

He doesn't like EcoGroup's plan for a fuel dock 115 feet from the public boat ramp or a floating ship's store.

"It's a very, very bad idea," Steenson said. "If we lose any portion of that boat ramp, we'll never get it back. That's my personal take on it, and I suspect that the majority of our membership, if it were to come to a vote, would say the same thing."

EcoGroup says the distance between the proposed private boat slips and the public dock is greater than at similar marinas around the state.

Adequate "navigational clearance" would be provided near the boat ramp to offer safe maneuvering, the developer said.

"Those of us who have had the experience of launching and retrieving boats from a public boat ramp understand the challenges that occur on the occasions when several vessels are being launched and/or retrieved within a short time frame," said Don Gunn, EcoGroup's chief operating officer.

"EcoGroup's goal is to improve the basin for the benefit of public usage and for those boaters who have an interest in docking their vessels in a new, state-of-the-art marina."

Final approval for EcoGroup's changes, once they are officially submitted, must come from the Tampa Port Authority, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

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Salty Sol regular David Cohalla glanced at an EcoGroup rendering of the modified New Port Marina.

"Looks like it would be very, very crowded," Cohalla said.

On a recent weekend, his family launched from the dock and had to battle nearly two dozen other boaters trying to come in as inclement weather approached.

EcoGroup says that what it wants to do has worked elsewhere: A popular public boat ramp at Cocohatchee River Park in Collier County has operated near a marina without conflict for 10 years, the developer said.

In that case, the distance between the public boat ramp and the marina is 1 foot closer than what EcoGroup plans.

Gunn plans to show how the modified New Port Marina and Salty Sol Fleischman Boat Ramp can similarly coexist.

On Aug. 13, he will attend a meeting of the Marine Law Enforcement Citizens Advisory Committee to discuss it.

Reach Kevin Graham at (813) 226-3433 or


Talking about it

The Marine Law Enforcement Citizens Advisory Committee will discuss EcoGroup's revised plan at 3 p.m. Aug. 13 at the County Center, 601 E Kennedy Blvd., Room 26B.