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Easement issues disrupt drainage project
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BELLEAIR BLUFFS – Refusal of a few residents to sign property easement approvals is putting the next phase of a multi-million dollar road and drainage improvement project at risk.

Half of the project’s $800,000 cost is funded by a cooperative agreement between Belleair Bluffs and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. That agreement states the job must be started by July 1. But property easements from two residents living on Pinehurst Avenue have still not been signed, Mayor Chris Arbutine said at the June 16 city commission meeting. Those are needed for Swiftmud to approve the project, he said.

The project will continue a massive citywide effort that includes road replacement and resurfacing, along with curbing, stormwater drains and outfalls. Work on the next phase, which includes Pinehurst Avenue and Cortez Avenue and Sunset Drive has been held up for months for various reasons.

The first delay was due to water quality studies conducted by the water management district. But the latest holdup relates to disputes with residents living on Pinehurst over the easements, stemming mostly from the welfare of mature trees on the properties and location of stormwater pipes. One disputed easement has been given, but two others have not.

Attorney Thomas Trask said the property owners’ demands “are constantly changing.” Recent phone and email messages have not been returned, he said.

“It’s a constantly moving target,” Trask said, referring to the residents’ concerns. “At first it was just trees; then other things kept coming up.”

A letter will be sent to the two remaining holdout property owners, telling them if they do not grant the requested easements on their property, Pinehurst Avenue will be left out of the current phase, and likely will not be done for years, until the entire project is completed, said Arbutine.

The Pinehurst segment’s cost is about $200,000 of the overall $800,000 price of the next phase.

The work on Cortez Avenue and Sunset Drive will likely proceed as planned, Arbutine said.

The mayor, who also lives on Pinehurst, said the city cannot risk losing the rest of the project. If the residents do not grant the easements, “we’ll reapply the money (to other areas) and do as much of the project as possible.”

If the easement agreements are not signed, Pinehurst would likely not be done “until the end of the entire drainage project,” said Public Works Director Robert David. “We’re not doing it any time soon,” he said.

Commissioner Jack Nazario recommended the letter be sent to all the residents on Pinehurst, “telling them how much the delay is costing them and making them aware of what we are doing.”

Commissioner Joseph Barkley said “one or two individuals are holding up improvements that affect 2,000 people.”

The property easements could be taken by the city under the right of eminent domain, said Attorney Trask. But the commission showed no interest in that option.

Arbutine said the easement issue with the Pinehurst residents has been going on since last August. “Plenty of people have signed easements,” he said. But the holdout agreements have not been signed, and “it doesn’t look like they’re going to be signed.”

For the work on Pinehurst to remain a part of the upcoming project phase, the easement agreements would have to be signed by June 23, David said. That is the “drop dead date,” he stressed.

But David added he saw little hope of that happening. The residents’ concerns “have been a moving target,” he said. “First they want this and then they want that.”

David said the property owners “have had all the time in the world to sign, and they haven’t done so.”

Fire services, station rental agreements approved

Contracts with the Largo fire department to continue supplying fire suppression services to the city, and a separate agreement to pay Belleair Bluffs for rental of the fire station on Indian Rocks Road were approved by the commission.

The cost of fire services will be $269,645 in fiscal year 2014-15, an increase of 2 percent. Belleair Bluffs will receive $34,778 in rent for the fire station.

Former first couple celebrates 65th anniversary

Former Mayor John Diller and his wife Gwen are celebrating 65 years of marriage. The couple was at the meeting, and the announcement was greeted with applause and congratulatory comments. Diller currently serves as chairman of the city’s Planning Board.
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