CLEARWATER - Following more than two hours of comments from the public and discussion among themselves, the Clearwater City Council approved a submerged land lease and dock agreement with the Sandpearl resort during their December 14th meeting.
The agreement provides for the construction a docking facility with 54 slips in an area of Clearwater Beach known as the yacht basin, just south of the beach recreation center and pool. Thirty-three of the slips would be managed by the Sandpearl, providing short term dockage for its guests and longer term leases for the wet storage of boats owned by nearby beach residents. Twenty-one slips would be dedicated for day use by members of the public.
The dock will be built entirely at Sandpearl's expense. The city will receive a $5,435 annually for the lease of the submerged land over which the docks will be built, but that amount will be reduced by Sandpearl's cost of maintaining the public portions of the facility.
Public opposition to the agreement was strong, taking nearly one hour of the marathon debate.
Marty Altner, a board member and resident at the nearby Belle Harbor condominiums, complained that the agreement had not received adequate public notice. "There is a lot of public sensitivity to the possibility that decisions are made more because of an interested party's political connections, than because the decision's results will be best for the people," he said, adding, "Unfortunately, such is the case with the perception of this proposed lease that many believe is being fast tracked for approval today without sufficient independent business or general public input."
Don Mestas, also a resident at Belle Harbor, described the proposed agreement as, "a very non-competitive sweetheart deal." He called it a public asset "being given away for the primary benefit of a private developer at the public's expense." He asked the Council to instead build a small public docking facility in the cove for day use only.
Beach resident Anne Garris questioned the lack of parking near the docks. While the agreement calls for Sandpearl to require those who lease its slips to not park in the adjacent public lot, Garris said, "Don't tell me that somebody who's purchased a million dollar condominium and has an umpteen-thousand dollar boat is going to put his stuff on his shoulder and walk it to his boat slip."
Garris also questioned the Council's failure to declare the submerged land "surplus" before leasing it for renewable 5-year terms totaling 30 years. "I ask you please to do what you were elected to do, which was to obey the charter," she said.
The Council also heard from two members of the city's Marine Advisory Board (MAB), both of whom questioned the agreement. Dave Hemerick said that the marina should be done by the city, and the plan should be postponed until the city had the money to build it. Frank Dame said that the consensus of the MAB was to have 50-percent of the slips for use by the public. He cited the docks behind the Island Way Grill as a model, saying that the restaurant built the docks and did not require any private use.
Paul Gibson, a resident of Belle Harbor and a candidate for City Council at the March 2007 election, described the manatee and dolphin he has seen in the cove and asked, "Has any type of environmental report been prepared?" Mayor Frank Hibbard responded, "There's none required."
While the city required no environmental report, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFMD), an organization with regulatory authority over the cove, did. In a letter dated December 7, SWFMD stated, "Please demonstrate an attempt to reduce potential adverse impact to Manatees … by considering a reduction in the number of the most waterward slips."
In its letter, SWFMD also questioned the impact of the docks on navigation. "Typically docks are limited to extending no more than 25-percent of the waterway … It is again suggested that the facility be redesigned to address this concern." Sandpearl's current dock design extends to nearly 50-percent of the width of the cove in places.
But with no authority over the site plan or environmental issues, the Council focused on the terms of the proposed agreement.
Councilmember Bill Jonson asked rhetorically, "Is it appropriate to put boat slips in there or not?" He answered his own question, citing the existing docks at Belle Harbor and saying, "Boat slips are not inappropriate in that area, subject to the permitting."
He also asked if the city should accept the proposal from Sandpearl, or build docks in the cove itself. He concluded, "The financial deal from JMC is really the better deal."
Councilmember Carlen Petersen agreed, saying that having 21 free slips at no cost to the city and the opportunity to buy the docks back in five years "makes it a win-win."
The Council approved the agreement unanimously, but with several minor revisions. Terms were added to prevent refueling at the docks, to limit the number of boat lifts to 50-percent of the slips, and to require locking gates at the public slips that would be locked at 12AM and opened at 5AM by the Sandpearl.
While the Sandpearl now has a dock agreement with the city, the concerns of SWFMD have not yet been resolved. SWFMD requires a response to its issues by January 7, 2007. According to Sandpearl's environmental consultant Tom Cuba, that response will be developed when he meets with SWFMD sometime before January 7.
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