Boating community objects to new vessel exclusion zone at Fort De Soto

This photo was shown as the May 19 county commission meeting as an example of how swimmers and boaters were congregating and creating a dangerous situation at Fort De Soto Park.

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners voted 5-2 May 19 to amend the location and size of vessel exclusion zones at Fort De Soto to make conditions safer for swimmers.

Commissioners Dave Eggers and Kathleen Peters voted no.

However, when the commission met again on May 28, commissioners were ready to rescind their decision to add a new vessel exclusion zone to the lagoon area in the North Beach area, which staff said was necessary to prevent swimmer and boater interaction.

The change would have allowed the existing swim zone on North Beach to be expanded to the north to include the lagoon between Outback Key and the park shoreline. In addition, an exclusion zone in an area to the south, previously established as North Beach East would have been repealed.

Paul Cozzie, Parks & Conservation Resources director, said the last time swim zones had been updated at the park was in 2008.

The new vessel exclusion zone would have prohibited motorized and non-motorized vessels.

Cozzie said on May 19 that an ebb shoal, known as Outback Key, had formed along North Beach years ago and had continued to grow. The 60-acre ebb shoal now extends south to an area behind North Beach swim center. It has modified the shoreline and created a lagoon.

Cozzie said the shoal would continue to grow and eventually cut off access to the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, swimmers are being endangered as they interact with watercraft, he said.

“It’s certainly not a safe condition,” he said.

Cozzie said after the county exclusion zone was approved, staff would go to Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to get permits for new signs. Buoys would be placed to mark the swim zones.

Cozzie said complaints had come in about people almost being hit by Jet Skis and other watercraft. There also is a problem with ultralight aircraft, but the county can’t do anything about that. In addition, the area has become popular with windsurfers.

Enforcement for the new exclusion zone would be done by FWC and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

Peters was concerned that eliminating an area where boaters could congregate would create crowding in other areas, especially with the new distancing requirements, which have since expired. She would only support protecting swimmers in the lagoon area not along the Gulf side of the beach.

Cozzie said boaters could still use the area off the new exclusion zone beyond the buoys marking the swim zone. They also can use the area around Bunce’s Pass.

“There’s 7 miles of beach at the park,” he said, adding there was not a lack of access for boaters.

However, the lagoon is shallow at low tide and creates an ideal place for parents to let kids play in the water, he said.

Commissioner Dave Eggers said he could understand excluding motorized vehicles, but not more passive craft, such as kayaks and canoes.

Cozzie said if a paddle boarder or kayaker wasn’t paying attention, they could go right over the top of a kid. He said it was a problem for the park’s lifeguards charged with trying to keep everyone safe.

Commission Chair Pat Gerard suggested banning the swimmers instead of the watercraft.

Cozzie explained that the beach area was the closest to the largest parking lot at Fort De Soto Park. He said the beach and lagoon area is used by about 2,000 swimmers who have to go through the lagoon to get to the beach.

He said the use of the vessel exclusion zone was the best way to provide a safe swim beach.

Objections from the boating community

During the May 28 work session, Commissioner Janet Long asked that the commission take another look at the issue based on her personal observations of the area.

“It is my opinion that the board did not fully understand the totality of the issues and the potential liabilities that currently exist at Bunce’s Pass involved with establishing a vessel exclusion zone,” she wrote in a memo.

Long wasn’t the only one that wanted the commission to take another look. A petition with 6,729 signatures was submitted the county with signees from across Tampa Bay and the United States.

The petition sent to the commissioners, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested that instead of a vessel exclusion zone, a no wake zone would be more appropriate.

Commission Chair Pat Gerard and Cozzie have since met with local boating organizations and commissioners also have received many, many emails and voice mail messages objecting to the May 19 decision.

Commissioners agreed May 28 to not move forward with the exclusion zone and reconsider the matter as soon as it could be property advertised, which will be in about two weeks. The new rule cannot be enforced without signs.

The most popular solution discussed by the commissioners and 16 members of the public that spoke on May 28 was to consider using a no wake zone in the lagoon area and maybe a minimum wake zone in other areas.

“One thing I want to state unequivocally, the boaters are not the problem,” Long said.

Long said the May 19 discussion did not resolve the dangers from seaplanes or Jet Skis. She said commissioners didn’t talk about other issues, such as camping, tents, or “big loose dogs,” kayaks, the dangerous current, alcohol use or enforcement.

Many believe that the current is too fast to create an area for swimmers where it was proposed by staff.

Commissioners Karen Seel and Peters have also visited the area since May 19 and didn’t see conditions that were presented by staff on May 19.

“I’m so sorry because normally we would have vetted this through a much more rigorous public process,” Seel said. “This not the way we normally address important matters such as this.”

County Administrator Barry Burton asked commissioners June 2 to delay the matter until at least the rnf of July to allow Cozzie more time to talk to boating groups and others interested in the matter. The consensus was that it was better to get it right than to do something fast.

Peters and Long urged the administrator to make sure everyone was engaged in the conversation.

“Take your time. Do it right,” said Commissioner Charlie Justice.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.