Mayor backs away from laying stormwater pipe

Residents on two Tampa streets were not told about the project. They had to dig for answers.

Published May 11, 2007

TAMPA - Residents who dug up city plans to run a massive stormwater drainage system down two picturesque South Tampa streets have spent the past few months bombarding Mayor Pam Iorio with e-mails and questions.

Thursday, the mayor backed away from it.

The plans, which were at least two years in the works, were part of a $24-million project to relieve flooding on Dale Mabry Highway between Henderson Boulevard and Neptune Street, a heavily traveled area that fills with water during heavy rains.

But residents worried the project would dig up their streets, kill their oaks and maybe threaten the foundations of their homes. They also were concerned because construction would close their streets for nearly two years.

Residents asked questions for months, and sent dozens of e-mails and letters to Iorio.

They complained that city officials provided no answers other than to say they hadn't decided on a route.

Neighbors didn't believe them, given the steady forward progress with an engineering firm.

But on Thursday, Iorio issued a formal statement: "The preliminary design that was done by Boyle Engineering was one look at how the project could be accomplished, " she said.

"It was not ready to go out for public comment because we had not determined that it would even be considered as a route. From the beginning, I have been concerned about the impact to neighborhoods."

Iorio said the city now is looking at using Dale Mabry Highway as an option for the pipe.

"Another possibility is not moving forward with the project at all, " she said. "This would be negative for the city since this drainage issue is serious and has never been addressed."

Street survey letter

Concern about the project dates back to July, when Granada Street resident Eric Rahenkamp grew curious after city officials sent a letter telling residents about a survey on the street.

Rahenkamp put in a request for public records, and got back plans to install a 12-foot by 6-foot box culvert more than 15 feet deep into his narrow street to keep stormwater from flooding Dale Mabry. The project was slated to start this fall.

This was the first he had heard about it. Why had no meetings been held? Rahenkamp wrote a letter to his neighbors in January.

Trenches would dig out their front lawns, he wrote. How would they park their cars? And what about the oak trees? The digging would surely destroy their roots, he wrote.

News spread to Sterling Avenue, and neighbors found out their street was part of this plan. They bombarded city officials with e-mails, asking if it was really coming, wondering why they hadn't been told.

Every time, officials told them a route hadn't been decided. But with every public records request, residents turned up plans only for their streets. They watched engineering plans solidify from 10 percent to 30 to 60 percent complete.

They read letters from engineers to AT&T, Bright House Networks, People's Gas, Tampa Electric and Verizon, telling them to adjust and relocate their utilities because construction was expected to begin in August.

The letter detailed the route - it was theirs, only theirs.

Residents started seeing utility trucks in their neighborhoods and markers in their lawns. And city officials kept saying nothing was final.

Strategy team formed

"This has been a public relations nightmare, " council member John Dingfelder chided city public works administrator Steve Daignault during a March 29 city council meeting. "What we created here by not going out to the community two or three months ago ... we created fear, we created confusion, and we created anger."

At the end of that hearing, the council urged Daignault to meet with residents.

April passed, and May came. Still no meeting.

Residents created a strategy team, hiring their own lawyers, engineers and arborists to study what potential damage the plans could create, and how they could stop it from coming to their neighborhood.

Now, it seems they have stopped it.

But residents say they are cautiously optimistic, and not ready to disband their strategy team.

"At least I think the city is starting to realize the original decision wasn't well thought out, " Rahenkamp said. He said he won't rest until he's seen the earth movers digging somewhere else, not on a residential street.

Sterling Avenue resident Scott Leslie said he wants to believe Iorio.

"The way we read her statements is 'We're not going to shove this down somebody's residential streets.' If that's, indeed, the case, then we applaud her resolve, " he said.

"We're still ready to meet with the city on our ideas. It's not 'Game over.' ... It doesn't belong on anybody's street."

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 813 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.