CLEARWATER - Responding to the concerns voiced by some Sand Key residents, the Clearwater City Council approved a proposed Slow Speed Minimum Wake Zone in the Gulf of Mexico off Sand Key during their August 4th meeting.
Bill Morris, Director of Marine and Aviation for the City of Clearwater, explained, "From my personal perspective, I do feel that there is a safety concern for both the recreational swimmers and the boaters that use the public beach and the shallow near-shore waters along the Gulf side of Sand Key." Morris explained that while there have not been calls for service placed to the Sheriff's Office or emergency response to accidents on the Gulf side, his office has been receiving an increasing number of complaints.
Morris proposed to resolve the safety issue by implementing a minimum wake zone in the Gulf of Mexico extending from the City limits on the South to the Sheraton Sand Key on the North. The zone would be marked with 62-inch pencil buoys, 32-inches of which being visible above the water's surface. The buoy line would be placed 300-feet from shore, with a 300-foot separation between buoys.
Bob Baker, President of the Sand Key Civic Association, illustrated the safety issue with six photographs of boats and personal watercraft operating at speed close to shore and in close proximity to swimmers in the Gulf along Sand Key; he urged the Council to approve the proposal. Other supporters of the wake zone recounted their observations of near misses in the area, many involving family members.
The opposition also made their points during the hearing. Dick Ruben, a past-president of the Sand Key Civic Association, claimed that the placement of buoys off Sand Key Beach had been considered as long ago as 1991, when the Association was formed. He said, "Both the City and the owners did not consider that we had a safety issue then, and we don't believe we have one now."
Ruben also objected to the role of condominium boards in bringing the wake zone issue to the City Council. He suggested that before instituting a wake zone, all the owners on Sand Key should be allowed to vote on the issue, with a 65% or greater approval required to move ahead with the proposal.
Councilmember Hoyt Hamilton objected to the slow speed zone. "Public safety is always our number one concern, always will be," Hamilton said, "But if we're going to do this strictly for public safety, we're going to elevate public safety to a level ... do we need to be looking at a 15 miles per hour speed limit on Gulf to Bay? We're elevating a potential to a public safety issue here and I'm not sure it meets the criteria for me."
Council Member Carlen Petersen supported the slow speed zone; she said, "There's no question in my mind that this is a safety issue." She also rebutted Hamilton's analogy to a lower speed limit on Gulf to Bay; "We make every effort to make sure those accidents don't happen. We've made no effort whatsoever in this area of the beach to prevent an accident."
The Council passed the Slow Speed Minimum Wake ordinance by a vote of 4-1, with Hamilton the only vote against. According to Harbormaster Morris, the buoy installation should cost less than $20,000, and occur "after the beach is nourished by the county/Army Corps of Engineers, a project that is supposed to start this month."
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