CLEARWATER - The Clearwater City Council will focus its attention on two issues important to boating interests next week. On their agenda is an ordinance that would create a recreational boating zone at the north end of Mandalay Channel, and the funding of a feasibility study of proposed boat slips on the downtown waterfront.
Mayor Frank Hibbard and Assistant City Manager Rod Irwin presented a preliminary plan for the boat slips to Clearwater's Marine Advisory Board (MAB) on Wednesday. It would consist of 138 slips along the downtown waterfront to the north and south of the Memorial Causeway Bridge.
Clearwater's voters recently defeated a referendum issue that would have allowed a downtown marina. Hibbard said, "We tried this in 2004, but it was balled together with a parking garage and a reconfiguration of Coachman Park." Another referendum is being planned for this November, but the boat slips will be a stand-alone issue this time he said.
The slips are planned to operate as an enterprise fund, with all of its costs covered by slip rental revenue. Preferred rates and priority would be granted to Clearwater residents. The facility would consist only of boat slips and a harbormasters office with two ADA-compliant restrooms; it would have neither a fuel dock nor launch ramps, Hibbard said.
The Marine Advisory Board favored the boat slip plan. The issue of allowing commercial excursion boats at the slips was discussed, and also favored by the MAB. Board member Hank Epstein said, "Not having excursions would be a disservice to the community."
Irwin said that the Council will be asked next week to provide $345 thousand for planning activities in advance of their decision to go forward with the referendum. The funds will be used for an independent financial analysis and market feasibility study, an update of permitting and engineering requirements, and the production of graphic renderings of the facility according to Irwin.
The Council will also consider a proposed ordinance that would relax the slow speed minimum wake zone at the north end of Mandalay. Recreational boating interests have requested that the waterway be declared a recreational boating zone, allowing small boats towing water skiers to operate at speed, but to continue the minimum wake restriction for larger vessels.
The wake zone was established last year because of safety concerns. Some residents along the channel had complained of hazardous conditions caused by the wakes produced by large vessels traveling at speed on the waterway.
Enforcement and signage will likely be discussed. The City of Clearwater has no marine unit, and enforcement of the new ordinance will fall to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Marine Patrol, a unit already stretched thin by other enforcement activities in the Clearwater area.
There is also concern that operators of large vessels will ignore the minimum wake restriction applicable to them. Pinellas County Sgt. Dwayne Somers said last month, "If a 26-foot boat operator sees three small boats operating at speed, then he'll think that he can too."
Both issues will be discussed by the Council during their worksession on Monday, March 13th. The Council will then conduct public hearings on both issues during their meeting on Thursday, March 16th, and vote to approve or deny the proposals.
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