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Gamble may cost casino ship's operators

For now, the ship cruises. But officials say it's trying to slip under Tarpon's ordinances, and cruises may be halted.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 3, 2001


For now, the ship cruises. But officials say it's trying to slip under Tarpon's ordinances, and cruises may be halted.

TARPON SPRINGS -- A casino boat that began sailing out of the Sponge Docks on Friday might face a showdown with the city this week.

The Victori, operated by Athena Cruises of Tarpon Springs, started sailing with passengers Friday morning and told customers it would continue sailing during the upcoming week. The boat is operating even though the city Board of Adjustment has denied the dock owner, George Billiris, the right to operate an offshore tour vessel at the site.

Billiris, the husband of City Commissioner Beverley Billiris, said Friday that he had just returned to town and did not know what was happening with the boat. Athena president Ken Whitcomb was on the boat and could not immediately be reached for comment.

Police Chief Mark LeCouris said he was aware that the boat took a tour Friday. City ordinances may not allow the boat to operate from the dock, he said.

"From everything I know, it isn't allowed," he said. "On the face of things, it would seem that's going to be a problem and we need to take some action."

He said he would wait for City Attorney John Hubbard's return from vacation this week before citing the company. He said Hubbard would have to decide whether the company actually violated the city's ordinance.

Billiris said his understanding is that the boat can operate from the dock, as long as it has 124 passengers or fewer. He said a boat with more passengers would require approval from city boards, but he thinks 124 passengers or fewer would be allowed under city ordinances.

"We're not trying to skirt anything, but as a businessperson, we need an activity there," he said last month.

The city Board of Adjustment voted in March to reject Billiris' proposal to bring an offshore tour vessel to his property at the docks, next to Santorini restaurant. The boat would be less than 1,500 feet from the nearest offshore tour vessel, which is not allowed under city ordinances. A majority of board members said they did not see a good reason to grant a variance to the ordinance.

The casino and dinner boat would be considered an offshore tour vessel only if it were determined by the Coast Guard to have a capacity of 125 or more. The city planning and zoning department had not received the capacity figures for the boat as of Friday, said department director Walter Fufidio.

Billiris is scheduled to ask the Board of Adjustment for a rehearing this month.

Another company, Paradise of Port Richey, also is trying to bring a casino boat to the Sponge Docks. That company, represented by attorney and state Rep. Larry Crow, has not yet presented its proposal at a city hearing.

Crow, a Republican from Palm Harbor, said Friday that he would wait to see what happens with Billiris' application before deciding how to proceed with his client's request. If Billiris does not receive a variance for an offshore tour vessel, Crow probably will not proceed with the Paradise application, he said.

Crow said that he was aware of the Victori's voyage Friday, and he was concerned that the city might allow the boat to operate without a variance. He noted that the last time Paradise operated out of Tarpon Springs, in 1998, the city cited the boat for not having the proper permits.

He said the city should follow through and cite the Victori.

"The city brought the police department to my client's dock and ordered them not to sail," he said. "I don't think there should be a double standard in the city."

- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182.

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