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Bill could benefit boat slips

It would grant amnesty to some who may have violated a 1925 state law and also allow future private docks in the area.

Published April 24, 2007


The driving force behind Clearwater's only local bill before the Florida Legislature is the city's beach marina and private property in the affluent Island Estates area - not the recently voter-approved boat slip project, the city's legal staff says.

But the boat slip project could benefit directly if state lawmakers approve the bill before adjourning May 4. City officials believe it could fortify the project against potential litigation by opponents of the project.

Largely unexplained by city leaders until last week, House Bill 1585 is poised for a full vote by the Florida House. And its Senate counterpart is expected to be heard today in the Senate's Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee, its only stop before the Senate floor.

The legislation would grant amnesty for any property owners in the Island Estates area who may have violated a 1925 state law by building private docks within 500 feet north of the Memorial Causeway. Island Estates, built just north of the causeway, didn't exist in 1925.

It would also allow future private docks in the area - subject to voter approval.

In 1925, the state granted the city the authority to allow construction on the submerged land along portions of the Memorial Causeway, as long as it's used for public purpose. If not, the underwater land would revert to state control.

Another benefit, city officials said, is the bill would write into state law that the city's beach marina's fuel dock and bait house met the definition of "public purpose."

City Attorney Pam Akin said in past years the city held discussions with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection about the matter, "but we wanted to make sure there were no other issues like that again," Akin said. "The boat slips are an added benefit - it clarifies that for them too - but that was not the (bill's) purpose."

Akin said city leaders have long felt that the downtown boat slip project - 129 slips, a promenade, boardwalk and fishing pier - near the causeway bridge are a public purpose. She said the city has not heard any different from the state.

"We were fine with it before, that they served a public purpose, but this will add an extra layer of comfort," she said.

The bill has caused some confusion among residents and local leaders who have pushed for its passage. City and state leaders even contradicted each other last week when asked about its driving force.

House sponsor Rep. Ed Hooper maintained the boat slip project led leaders to craft the bill.

Both the mayor and city manager, however, contradicted that, deferring to the city's legal staff to explain. Assistant city attorney Laura Lipowski said the city proposed the bill to assure riparian rights to the Island Estates area, which didn't exist in 1925. She said some residents have threatened legal action if they couldn't build and the city felt they should have the right.

Beach resident Anne Garris, who has publicly questioned the bill, said she's still suspicious. She said the city has long found "creative ways of interpreting public use" and wondered what could be next.

"So the public boat slips that are strictly for the benefit of the wealthy boat owners can be construed to be the same as motels for wealthy visitors," Garris said, adding that she wouldn't be surprised if the city built a motel on top of a public parking garage on the beach marina.

City leaders counter that voters, under the city charter, must sign off on major projects along the causeway. Further, they said, they'd seek comment from residents about any new development at the beach marina.

[Last modified April 24, 2007, 07:09:29]

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