Agencies strive to rescue whales

Representatives of several agencies and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium joined forces to help save five stranded whales, located underneath in the tents in the distance, off Redington Beach on July 29.

St. Pete Beach opts for mini-buses

ST. PETE BEACH — The city plans to implement its own micro-transit bus service and begin ferrying passengers from the area of the Don Cesar Hotel into Pass-A-Grille.

During their Sept. 17 meeting, city commissioners unanimously agreed to enter into a contract with Miami-based Beefree, which operates under the name Freebee, to provide transit service currently handled by PSTA buses.

Freebee provides free rides on eco-friendly cars that are similar to golf carts.

The city received only one response to its monthlong request for proposals in August.

Commissioners agreed to accept Freebee’s bid to provide three years of micro-transit service for an amount not to exceed $794,174, with the option to request an extension of the contract for two additional one-year periods.

Terminating PSTA service from the Don CeSar into Pass-A-Grille saves the city about $150,000 that will be put toward micro-transit.

New city manager chosen

In a close decision over the top two candidates, commissioners on Feb. 6 chose Miami Lakes Town Manager Alejandro “Alex” Rey to become St. Pete Beach’s city manager.

Michelle Neuner, assistant city manager in Winter Park, was voted a close second choice by commissioners.

In his résumé, Rey said Miami Lakes, a town of 33,000 residents, was incorporated in April 2001.

As the manager for the initial years of the town, he was responsible for creating all the various departments, including building, planning and zoning, police, finance, public works and engineering, code enforcement, information technology, clerk’s office and other support areas.

He replaced Wayne Saunders, who decided to retire from the city’s top administrative post after four years.

Commission OKs borrowing plan for sewer system upgrades

To put an end to St. Pete Beach’s building moratorium, city commissioners agreed to spend $12 million on sanitary sewer system upgrades by borrowing $2 million from a state loan program and considering adoption of a series of sewer rate increases.

In 2016 the city adopted a moratorium to prevent new development or redevelopment that would increase sewer flow, until additional capacity is provided to help ensure sanitary sewer overflows do not occur.

The improvements to its sewer system are needed to lift the moratorium and allow new development. Officials contend that will subsequently raise taxable property income for the beach community.

During the Aug. 27 commission meeting, city manager Rey said an increase to the wastewater fee is needed to furnish sufficient funding for treatment fees imposed by the city of St. Petersburg and to provide adequate debt service coverage for the city’s plan to borrow from the State Revolving Fund loan program.

TI buys buy building for city offices

TREASURE ISLAND — City commissioners took a big step toward moving City Hall when they unanimously approved purchasing the Allied Building at 10451 Gulf Blvd. for $6.35 million on Aug. 6.

Purchase of the building includes acquisition of a contiguous vacant parking lot on 105th Avenue. The property includes 1.42 acres of land and a 37-year-old office building with approximately 19,000 usable square feet and 82 parking spaces.

The property offers twice the amount of parking of the current City Hall location — 82 versus 41 parking spaces, said Amy Davis, finance director and assistant city manager.

City expands metered parking

During their regular Aug. 6 meeting, city commissioners unanimously voted to spend $40,705 to provide 42 additional metered parking spaces in four different areas around the island, giving the city a total of 472 metered places.

Davis explained the city currently has 430 metered parking spaces; 78 of those spaces were added in 2017 during the first phase of a parking expansion project that resulted in an increase in the city’s parking revenue.

“Staff has noted some general and unique situations at these four locations that warrant adding metered parking at this time,” Davis explained. “Kingfish Drive, in the area around Gator’s Café, has had structured city parking for many years, albeit un-metered. There are numerous cars parked in the area on weekdays and weekends for traffic crossing over the bridge to walk to John’s Pass Village.”

Donation sparks development of dog park

City commissioners unanimously accepted the Isle of Capri Civic Association’s contribution of $21,995 to develop John Morroni Memorial Dog Park in Rosselli Park, but it was not without another effort by a group opposing the amenity to prevent it from being built.

During an Oct. 1 City Commission meeting, Justin Tramble, assistant director of recreation, noted it was at a March 19 meeting that commissioners approved the dog park being built at Rosselli Park, behind the ballfield’s left-field fence, pending funds raised by the ICCA.

The commission amended city codes to establish a city dog park and permit dogs to run at-large and unleashed within the fenced area of the park, Tramble explained.

Madeira Beach names permanent city manager

MADEIRA BEACH — In an unexpected move that gained immediate acceptance, the City Commission decided to let interim City Manager Robert Daniels stay on as permanent manager. Daniels was hired in early July to fill the city’s top job until city manager-designate James Drumm’s arrival.

But Daniels’ performance at City Hall impressed commission members and staff to the extent he has been asked to stay on.

Daniels’ hiring came at the end of the unfinished business section of the Aug. 13 commission meeting, listed on the agenda as a “discussion of city manager position” led by City Attorney Ralf Brookes.

City approves $15 million loan for stormwater/road projects

The city will soon have a large infusion of money to pay for stormwater control and road improvement projects, which some say have been promised for years.

In a rare unanimous vote, the City Commission approved at its July 9 regular meeting a $15 million loan that will be used to finance the projects. Half of the money, $7.5 million, will go to fix the roads on Crystal Island, with the rest going to other problem areas in the city. Those projects will be prioritized on the basis of need.

New rules regulate live-aboard boats

The City Commission gave final approval to an ordinance Oct. 8 that sets regulations for boaters who live on board their vessels. The law requires live-aboard boat owners who dock in city waters to get a permit costing $5, and pump out at the city marina. They can then anchor for 72 hours before having to move on.

Nearby condo owners and American Legion members favor the regulations, which many said were overdue. Live-aboard boat owners mostly opposed the law, saying they were being penalized for the irresponsible actions of a few.

Indian Shores hires new police chief

INDIAN SHORES — Richard H. Swann was sworn in as the new police chief at the March 26 Town Council meeting.

This makes Swann the third chief of police for the town in the last six months. With unexpected resignations, former Chief of Police E.D. Williams filled in twice as interim police chief.

Of the 31 applicants who vied for the position, Swann was one of the final four who interviewed for the job. He cleared all the hurdles necessary to land the position, including a newly added requirement of an evaluation by a licensed behavior psychologist attached to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

Swan, a second-generation law enforcement officer, has 40 years of command experience, according to his resume. Twenty-seven years of that was with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and State Attorney’s Office as well as 18 years of reserve service with the Indian Shores Police Department.

The Police Department serves Indian Shores and Redington Shores.

A whale of a story in the Redingtons

REDINGTON BEACH — It’s something that residents rarely see: five short-finned pilot whales stranded several yards offshore.

Jessica Powell, a spokeswoman for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, said the first reports about the whales came in between 6 and 7 a.m. July 29 but officials hadn’t determined when they were stranded.

Later that afternoon, after 10 hours of rescue efforts, three of the whales were taken to deeper waters and released —with satellite tags — as they did not appear to have any medical issues, according to a Clearwater Marine Aquarium Facebook post.

The other two whales were taken to the aquarium’s rehabilitation facility and were eventually released.

Officials hadn’t determined why the whales were stranded.

“It’s really hard in these situations,” Powell said. “They are highly social species so there are number of reasons why these animals could have mass-stranded.”

Many streets in Redington Beach were lined with vehicles belonging to people that took to the sand to see the whales.

Redington Long Pier demolition expected

The Redington Long Pier likely will be gone soon.

The Town Commission’s rejection of a land-use change for the pier property, needed to save the historic structure, appears to have sealed its fate.

State officials are in the process of getting bids to tear the structure down.

The commission voted 4 to 1 at its Oct. 9 meeting to deny a land-use change required to move forward a proposal to build a 120-room, nine-story hotel on the pier property and save the deteriorating pier. Local real estate investor Ben Mallah and his business partner Tony Utegaard sought the land-use change as the first step in a process that also required approvals by the county and state.

Some residents saw the proposed nine-story hotel as too big for the small slice of land. They spoke of views blocked by the hotel, increases in traffic and noise, and the hotel being out of character for the town.

Speakers who favored the developer’s proposal were focused on saving the pier. Some told of their fond memories and fishing on the structure. They recognized the need for the hotel revenue to fund the pier reconstruction and upkeep.

Town Attorney James Denhardt said after the meeting that the town’s rejection of the land-use change means the demolition of the pier “has been decided.”

New public safety facility to speed up response times for Redingtons

NORTH REDINGON BEACH — Emergency help will be at the front door of Redington-area homes more quickly after officials here partnered with neighboring towns and the county to build a new station for emergency services workers.

Redington Shores town commissioners unanimously approved Oct. 16 an interlocal agreement with North Redington Beach, Redington Beach and Pinellas County to construct, maintain and operate a multi-use facility in North Redington Beach.

The building will be a home base for fire rescue workers and emergency medical workers. Additionally, it will provide offices for Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies, space for Redington Shores public works operations, and will replace North Redington’s current public works facility.

The facility will be located at 190 173rd Ave. E. in North Redington Beach, the location of that town’s current public works facility and a county lift station.

Construction costs are estimated at $3 million, with Pinellas County pitching in $2.6 million. The rest will be portioned out to the three communities: North Redington Beach will pay $200,000, Redington Shores, $140,000 and Redington Beach $60,000.

New development underway on Wine Cellar property

After years of lying vacant, the old Wine Cellar property is about to take on new life.

On July 9, civic officials and developers gathered to break ground for the new Redington Village development. The 15,000-square-foot development consists of two buildings and will contain seven businesses, six of which have already committed.

The property is on Gulf Boulevard at 174th Avenue. The portion nearest to 174th is located in Redington Shores while the larger portion is in North Redington Beach.

City fed up with unauthorized fireworks

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — In spite of city and county ordinances as well as state law forbidding the sale and use of fireworks in the entire state, unauthorized fireworks are a persistent problem in Indian Rocks Beach.

A work session to discuss deterring fireworks was led by City Manager Gregg Mims at the Oct. 8 City Hall meeting.

Mims began the discussion by exhibiting a series of photos projected on the main screen in the auditorium, revealing truckloads of fireworks, mortar fragments and spent firework debris being cleaned off the beach. This scene is repeated the days after New Year’s Eve and July 4th year after year, not to mention other random holidays.

The fireworks and their aftermath make the beaches look more like “something you would expect to see in Afghanistan,” said Mims.

With New Year’s Eve not that far off, commissioners gave Mims the go-ahead to arrange for “no fireworks” flyers to be distributed at each beach access. That, combined with both newspaper and electronic media coverage as well as signs and notices posted well before the holiday, will be a start. The city will also request additional police presence from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to enforce the existing ordinance against fireworks.

Fire assessments increase

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District is increasing assessments by $100 for single-family homes, apartments, condos and timeshares for the next fiscal year.

For months, district officials built their case to raise the assessment, noting that without more revenue or a reduction in services, their operations would be in an untenable financial situation by 2024. District voters approved the proposed increases in a March 12 referendum.

At a meeting Sept. 25, the district board of commissioners took the final step in the approval process for the increasing non-ad valorem assessments for fiscal year 2019. Under a resolution adopted unanimously by the commission that evening, the assessments for single-family homes, apartments, condos and timeshares will increase to $360.

Belleair prepares for LPGA tournament

BELLEAIR — More than 50,000 people are expected to attend the LPGA golf tournament at the Pelican Golf Club from May 11-17.

“On the weekend over 6,000 people are expected each day and that means things have to run smoothly,” said Ryan Dever, the tournament manager, during a meeting of a special logistical task force Nov. 13.

Most of the top 100 players on the circuit are expected to attend, he said.

The biggest challenge facing the group will be to figure out how to move so many people in and out of the tournament and making sure the vendors are properly situated.

On July 18, the Doyle family announced they had secured the LPGA tournament for the club. Golfers will be competing for a $1.7 million purse.

Sale of Ahlf properties in sight in Belleair

The sale of the Ahlf properties should happen soon, Town Manager J.P. Murphy told commissioners Nov. 19.

Longtime resident Bob Ahlf died in April. For those seven months the property he willed to the town has been in limbo. Now, Murphy said, the end is in sight. The property could be worth millions.

Ten years ago, Ahlf made a deal with the town that he would will his 2 1/2-acre waterfront property if they would pay the property taxes as long as he lived.

City manager, mayor bicker

BELLEAIR BEACH — The mayor and city manager had a heated exchange at the Dec. 2 City Council meeting.

Declaring he had “had enough,” City Manager Lynn Rives leveled a series of accusations against Mayor Joseph Manzo, saying he had concerns over Manzo’s “continuing hostility and interference in city operations.” This, Rives said, “has created a hostile work environment.”

In a prepared statement made during the city officials’ comments section at the end of the agenda, Rives made a series of blistering accusations against the mayor, which he said were backed with documentation.

Rives said over the past several months “I have endured accusations, avoidance, harassment and interference” from a member of this council, whom he soon identified as the mayor.

Manzo, an attorney, said Rives made a legal accusation.

“I take it quite seriously, and he’s wrong,” Manzo said, “and that’s nothing new.”

Manzo said, “You and I have tried to work together in the past, and every time I’ve extended that olive branch, I’ve had it rammed up my butt. And I’m getting tired of it.”

Council member Glenn Gunn said Rives gets “stuff done.”

“We’re supposed to give (Rives) direction, not micromanage him,” he said.

City terminates attorney’s contract

As had been expected, the City Council voted at its June 3 meeting to authorize the mayor to terminate the city’s contract with Attorney Paul Marino. The move follows a decision by council last month to put the city attorney job out for bids.

The council’s action ends the city’s 20-year relationship with Marino.

Marino and the mayor engaged in a heated exchange in which Marino repeatedly attempted to read his comments to council and was told by Manzo he could not speak unless called on.

Fred Reilly of Reilly International Law Firm is the new city attorney of Belleair Beach. Reilly was chosen in a 5-to-2 vote by the city council at a special meeting on July 17. Interviews were held with the candidates prior to the vote.

City gets grant for park improvements

Planned upgrades for Bayside Park will get a big assist from a $200,000 grant the city has received from the federal government for park improvements.

City Manager Lynn Rives announced the grant award at the Dec. 2 City Council meeting.

Rives said Belleair Beach’s application to receive a portion of $3.8 million in federal grant money had ranked second of all the submissions in the state. The improvements include a new boardwalk, renovation of the playground and tennis courts, a bocce ball court, exercise equipment, a bike rack and public restrooms.

Belleair Shore to allow more beach activities

BELLEAIR SHORE — The town will soon be allowing beach activities that had been banned for years. A new ordinance, passed on first reading by the Town Commission at its Nov. 19 meeting, allows beachgoers to ride their bicycles on the beach and also to use rafts, kayaks, paddleboards and other non-motorized watercraft.

The law removing prior restrictions on beach behavior in Belleair Shore will take effect when the ordinance is passed, as expected, on second reading at next month’s town commission meeting.

The move to reduce the list of activities banned on the beach has been talked about for months. Commissioner Steve Blume said at the June commission meeting, “If we have something on the prohibited list that we don’t object to, why have it on the list?”

Still banned on the town’s beaches will be motorized and electric bicycles and motorized watercraft. Also, food or cooking, alcohol, fires, dogs, camping, littering, or possession of any glass or metal beverage containers will not be allowed.

Plans for West Bay Drive get flak

BELLEAIR BLUFFS — Concepts for a West Bay Drive improvement project that were discussed at the City Commission’s Aug. 12 meeting brought criticism Mayor Chris Arbutine.

Arbutine expressed frustration about not having enough information on all segments of the corridor.

Joan Rice, the county’s manager for the project, mainly provided information on the segment from the Belleair Causeway Bridge to Indian Rocks Road, seeking commissioners’ input on issues such as lane widths, medians, pedestrian crossings, speed limits and medians.

Funds have been set aside for the West Bay resurfacing project, Rice said. Since they have been doing the work they are asking communities what other improvements they would like that reduce crashes, maintain the travel time and improve bicycle mobility and address other issues.

“We listened to everybody’s needs and wants. There’s definite differences between sections of the roadways,” she said.

After the presentation Arbutine said he didn’t think it was fair only to show concepts for the section from Indian Rocks Road to the bridge, noting that the corridor extends from Clearwater-Largo Road all the way to the bridge.

“I don’t even know what to compare it to,” he said, asking what sizes are being considered for the lanes in the other segments.

At the end of meeting, Arbutine said he wants City Administrator Debra Sullivan to draft a letter from him thanking county officials for the presentation, but he feels they need more in-depth information and intergovernmental work with the City of Largo to move forward with the project.

City gets hurricane reimbursement funds

The city has received $209,000 in reimbursement funds related to costs incurred during and after Hurricane Irma, which struck the area in September 2017.

The money is coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for emergency measures undertaken during the storm, repairs of damaged buildings and equipment, debris removal and other Irma-related projects.

The FEMA payment to the city was announced at the Jan. 14 City Commission meeting by City Clerk Alexis Silcox, who was also the city’s hurricane response coordinator.

“Awesome,” said Arbutine.

“That’s fantastic,” Commissioner Suzy Sofer said.