Sponge dock renovations are still set to be completed by the start of the tourist season, despite setbacks and resident complaints.
TARPON SPRINGS – After months of public meetings and architectural designs for the sponge dock improvement project, the city of Tarpon Springs is trying again.
On Tuesday, to the applause of the self-proclaimed “Save the Sponge Docks” group, Tarpon Springs City Manager Mark LeCouris presented revised plans after the City Commission temporarily postponed the project.
The new plans, approved by a 5-0 vote, are now being labeled as a streetscape project.
• The comprehensive lighting project will replace all of the present streetlights leased from Duke Energy with new decorative lights owned by the city. The new lights would allow the city to attach banner arms to the poles, add electric outlet capabilities and decorate for Christmas and other special occasions. The present lights, which are more than 15 years old, do not have the capabilities of new lighting fixtures.
• Various amenities, including benches, trash receptacles and decorative pots will be replaced throughout the Sponge Docks area with input from all concerned citizens and especially those affected by the project.
• A comprehensive review will be made of all areas to determine any need for sidewalk and curb replacement, enhancement or repair. Input from business owners, property owners and shop operators will be taken into consideration.
• Landscape improvements will include upgrades and enhancements of the present landscaping, with input from those who would be most affected.
“I’ve heard some people call it the city manager’s plan, but it’s not. It’s all of your plans,” LeCouris said at the April 15 City Commission meeting. “It’s going back to the basics.”
In determining the new plan, LeCouris said he looked at the common elements that had been discussed in the past three years that would enhance the beauty of the docks without the controversy that had arisen in the original plans.
In the first vote on the issue, all project plans presented at the Dec. 17 Commission meeting were terminated, ending the process of bidding for construction.
Many complaints of the project stemmed from the assumption that the docks would lose their historic value, an important aspect for the town known for its sponge industry.
Mary Coburn, the Tarpon Springs lawyer who has represented opponents of the project since the issue arose, presented the Commission with a petition of 577 signatures of those in disagreement with the plans.
Some citizens also voiced concerns that the changes would affect the waterways, calling it the “death of the sponge docks.”
Ed Hoffman, the architect of the original project, was the subject of several accusations of hiding information about the effect of the original plans on the usability of Anclote River for diving and fishing boats. He disputed the claims, which he called strong accusations against his credibility, and questioned the need for anger and hostility.
“My job was to make as many people happy as possible,” he said. “All those things we were doing was because we thought it was the right thing.”
Mayor David Archie and City Manager Mark LeCouris have continually assured residents that the usability of the dock would not be affected by the improvements, but enough complaints were registered with the city to convince the Commission to take another look.
“I’ve been charged with trying to get consensus of a project the Commission could approve and be happy with without the controversy,” LeCouris said in a separate interview. “We’re obviously still concerned about the people who actually have to move and turn in the channel.”
LeCouris still hopes to keep the same timeframe for the project as before, which would have all construction completed before the tourist season begins.
“This simplified streetscaping is a good use of the money,” he said, “and a good way to enhance the sponge docks without all of the controversy.”
Each individual element of the project will be brought to the various affected groups in the community for approval and input before coming back to the City Commission for final votes.