Advertisement
  1. News

Tarpon Springs hits brakes on Sponge Docks improvements

Tarpon Springs officials’ plan to upgrade the Sponge Docks was criticized as a departure from the tradition of a working waterfront.
Published Mar. 25, 2014

TARPON SPRINGS — Due to a sustained public outcry and some pointed questions, Tarpon Springs officials are hitting the brakes on the city's $1.3 million plan to beautify and enhance the Sponge Docks tourist district.

A majority of Tarpon city commissioners want to put the project on hold, so the city staff is shutting it down — for now.

"We've stopped everything, so we're not spending any more money on it," said City Manager Mark LeCouris. "We won't be starting up again unless the commission says to."

Tarpon residents who are opposed to the project assert that federal authorities won't allow the city to add an 8-foot-wide boardwalk to the Sponge Docks at the water's edge. They believe it would become a navigation hazard on the narrowest part of the Anclote River.

The project's architect firmly believes otherwise. "It's a totally reasonable thing to do," architect Ed Hoffman said of the boardwalk.

The Sponge Docks improvement project has gone through a years-long planning and design process that included at least four public workshops. Various elements of the plan were recently put out for bid, including the boardwalk, a small amphitheater, brick streets, decorative light poles, way-finding signs, an entrance gateway and a dock for visiting boaters.

Once the city got price quotes from contractors, Tarpon commissioners were planning to decide which parts of the plan they actually wanted to do.

But that's not on the agenda now. Instead, the bidding process has been halted. Officials say they'll do further research and meet with the boardwalk's opponents and supporters.

Some opponents of the Sponge Docks improvement project think parts of it are too modern-looking for the historic district.

Others contend that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won't permit a Sponge Docks boardwalk because that would make it too difficult for boats on the Anclote to get through. Sponge boat captains dock their boats two abreast on the river's south side, while shrimpers dock their boats three abreast on the north side, leaving a fairly narrow channel in between.

A boardwalk could also interfere with dredging the Anclote, opponents say.

"They're going to shrink the river," said tugboat captain Sean O'Keefe, who owns a commercial fishing boat in Tarpon Springs. "My friends who have shrimp boats aren't going to be able to pass safely. Some aren't going to be able to pass at all."

"We could have saved a lot of money if they had listened to us at the very beginning," added longtime sponge diver Bill Gresko. He attended one of several city workshops on the project but felt that his input was ignored.

So far, the city has spent nearly $350,000 on designs and engineering for the whole plan. Tarpon commissioners say someone should be held accountable if some of that money was wasted on an unrealistic proposal.

"If this project was not permitable, how did we get to this point?" Commissioner David Banther wondered Tuesday.

However, city staffers and the project's architect say that throughout the process, they've communicated with the state and federal agencies that would eventually have to approve the boardwalk. Tarpon Springs hasn't yet submitted a final application seeking permits.

"You submit preliminary things, and they send you back changes," said LeCouris, the city manager. "In all the preliminary stuff, there's been no indication that there will be a problem permitting it."

Hoffman, the architect, said the engineering firm URS has been doing the marine permitting work for the project. He said the project team has already modified its plans based on concerns raised by the Corps of Engineers and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

For example, they changed the surface of part of the riverside amphitheater from concrete to wood. The proposed amphitheater would serve as a public gathering place in a spot that's already used for festivals.

"But it has to be a working waterfront. The dock extension is not supposed to be for dancing, so we had to change it back to wood," Hoffman said. "We were doing what we thought was reasonable, what we thought was within the rules. The corps is going to be the ultimate decider."

The Army Corps of Engineers confirmed they've been talking with the city, but they haven't made any decisions about the boardwalk.

"Right now, we're in the early stages of going through the review steps before a determination can be made," said corps spokeswoman Nakeir Nobles.

Some Tarpon commissioners sound like they're ready to simply move forward on the less controversial elements of the Sponge Docks project, like lights and landscaping and signage.

"Even if we can come to a consensus on a more common-sense approach, can we still complete it during the summer?" wondered Commissioner Townsend Tarapani. "In theory, you want the whole project to be done in the offseason."

Mayor David Archie says he's frustrated by "misinformation" that's being spread about the project. If there's no consensus, he said, Tarpon could spend its allotted Penny for Pinellas money on a different project — like a new fire station.

"We recognize the value of the Sponge Docks," the mayor said. "If there's any constructive thing that would help the dock area — something that we can agree on — let's move ahead. If we can't, let's spend the money somewhere else."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. A sign seen on the front door of Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria in March, after owner Tom Woodard stopped serving drinks with plastic straws. The St. Petersburg City Council voted 5-2 on Thursday night to ban single-use plastic straws. [CHRIS URSO  |  Times]
    The City Council tweaked its own ordinance banning single-use plastic straws, which is set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
  2. Student activists with the March For Our Lives group, founded after the Feb. 2018 Parkland shooting, hold a banner that promotes their new "peace plan" to prevent gun violence, while demonstrating in the rotunda of the state capitol building in Tallahassee. Emily L. Mahoney | Times
    The 18-year-old student director of March for Our Lives Florida said school shootings are so common they are “not shocking” anymore.
  3. Steven Currall prepares to deliver an address during his investiture as the University of South Florida's seventh president Thursday at the Yuengling Center in Tampa. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    Though he started the job in July, Steve Currall is officially installed as president on his 137th day in office.
  4. Apollo Global Management has offered $130 per share for Tech Data's stock in an acquisition worth $5.4 billion. If regulators shareholders approve, the home-grown company will remain based in Pinellas County, where it employs 2,000 of its 14,000 workers. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Private equity firms like Apollo create wealth for pension funds, financial institutions and individual investors by buying assets that typically are sold later at a profit.
  5. Some of Tampa Bay's largest companies are being sold or are up for sale. Times files and Bloomin' Brands
    Tech Data is just the latest in a growing list of public companies bought up by out-of-state firms.
  6. Gov. Ron DeSantis greets local officials at Dunedin High School on Oct. 7, 2019, part of a swing around the state to announce his plan to boost starting teacher pay in Florida to $47,500. He revealed a related teacher bonus plan on Nov. 14 in Vero Beach. MEGAN REEVES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The new plan would replace the controversial Best and Brightest model that DeSantis had called confusing.
  7. The "#9pmroutine" is a core social media feature for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Now, the agency has a copyright on it. Facebook
    Copyrighting a key part of the agency’s social media presence isn’t meant to limit its reach, the office said, but rather to stop bad actors.
  8. USF student Gabriela Young is the owner of Earth and Ivory, an online jewelry business with items made out of clay.  [Special to the Times | Sarah Foster] SARAH FOSTER  |  Special to the Times | @sarahtheartiste
    Gabriela Young went from selling bracelets to friends to making clay wares for customers with her business, Earth and Ivory.
  9. Chief Veterinarian Mallory Offner examines a female rescue puppy at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    With 250 of the pooches ready for adoption, each potential puppy parent has a 1-in-4 shot at getting picked in today’s drawing.
  10. Eight vehicles were involved in a fiery and fatal crash late Wednesday that left two people dead and shut down northbound Interstate 75 bridging Hillsborough and Pasco counties, authorities said. The driver of the white van pictured above, George Pagan of Tampa, said he saw the semi-trailer truck, left, sliding sideways toward him in his rearview mirror before impact. Pasco Fire Rescue
    The chain-reaction crash that closed the northbound lanes near the Pasco-Hillsborough line started when a semi-trailer truck driver didn’t stop for traffic, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement