Tampa City Council kills controversial plan to fill in open waters in Tampa Bay

Council members compared the proposal, which had largely ended in the 1970s, to smoking in airplanes and bell bottom jeans.
So many Rocky Point residents showed up to protest a plan to fill three acres of a lagoon in the neighborhood that the crowd couldn't fit inside City Council chambers on June 28, 2018. (Photo Credit: Charlie Frago)
So many Rocky Point residents showed up to protest a plan to fill three acres of a lagoon in the neighborhood that the crowd couldn't fit inside City Council chambers on June 28, 2018. (Photo Credit: Charlie Frago)
Published June 29, 2018|Updated June 29, 2018

The Tampa City Council has buried a plan to fill in part of Tampa Bay to create land for expensive homes.

Now they're taking action to fill in gaps in the city's comprehensive plan so no one can revive a form of development that went out of style with bell bottoms and smoking in airplanes: dredge and fill.

The unanimous vote on a project that had riled the Rocky Point neighborhood near the Courtney Campbell Causeway came after nearly three hours of discussion late Thursday. Dozens of residents pleaded with council members not to allow a developer to fill in open water off North Rocky Point Drive, where they often see manatees and dolphins, to build town homes. A few hundred residents showed up, overflowing council chambers and crowding into the hallway.

"When I think about this filling, this outdated policy that was essentially outlawed in the 1970s, why are we going backwards? This is 2018," said council member Guido Maniscalco, who represents the area.

Immediately after the vote, council member Charlie Miranda made a motion to ask the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission to bring back an amendment that would explicitly ban dredge and fill projects for residential development. The city's comprehensive plan currently lacks that language.

Commission Planner David Hey said the change could be ready for council consideration in about six months.

Most of the meeting was dominated by Rocky Point residents, who lined up to register their concerns.

Speakers showed cellphone videos of dolphins and manatees that regularly visit the lagoon in the Rocky Point neighborhood adjacent to the Courtney Campbell Causeway. (The lagoon was declared a manatee protection zone in 2004.)

They voiced fears of a precedent being set that would spur similar projects to fill in Tampa Bay.

"The manatees were there before the land was bought," said Allison Roberts, president of the nearby Dana Shores Civic Association.

The submerged land was bought by a New York development group about a decade ago. The group said it only planned to build 16 town homes and that filling the water would improve water quality in the rest of the lagoon.

"It's a restoration project," said Michael D. Horner, a Tampa land-use consultant.

That statement elicited jeers from the crowd and a warning from Chairman Frank Reddick.

The Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission approved the land-use change in May.

Horner asked the council to follow suit. The three acres were already zoned for residential use. The developers just wanted the city's comprehensive plan to align with its existing zoning.

"This is about changing the color on a map," Horner said.

David B. Dickey, one of the lagoon's owners, said he and his partners, even if the council approved the comprehensive plan, would have to get several more agencies to sign off on the permitting process before filling in a portion of the lagoon.

Dickey declined comment after the vote.

His group could always reapply or seek the land-use change through the courts, Hey said.

Earlier, city staff had lodged their protests, saying that the city's zoning code was never intended to allow filling open water. Instead, the code allows for structures to be built over the water or floating on top of it, said Cathy Coyle, planning and urban design manager.

But Assistant City Attorney Rebecca Kert acknowledged that nothing in the city's land-use rules specifically banned what the developers wanted to do.
Kent Bailey, chairman of the Tampa Bay group of the Sierra Club, said that was because no one anticipated that dredge and fill projects, which had been largely prohibited in the 1970s, would mount a comeback.

"Isn't it obvious water doesn't have a land use?" Bailey said. "That's what you should be amending."

Reddick, the council chairman, was a stern voice of order all night, repeatedly admonishing the crowd then they spoke out of turn or started to applaud. At one point, he threatened to adjourn the meeting without a vote.

But, once the council had made its decision, Reddick smiled and said: "Now you can cheer."