Stretching from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg, the Pinellas Trail is a 45-mile public asset that residents and businesses increasingly hope to connect with and utilize.
While county leadership approves of businesses, neighborhood associations and apartment complexes connecting to the trail – contingent on two-way public access – commissioners strongly oppose homeowners constructing personal access points.
During Thursday’s county commission work session, Administrator Barry Burton said the Pinellas Parks and Conservation Resources Department (PCR), which maintains and operates the trail, began formalizing a process last year to determine who can link to the community resource.
“Whether it’s two guys with a hammer building a bridge – whether it’s engineered plans,” said Burton. “And they’ve went back and looked at our policies regarding our trail and our access and tried to come up with some standards.”
Lyle Fowler, operations manager for PCR, explained the Pinellas Trail features three types of connections – commercial, residential and municipal. Out of the 138 official access points to the trail, the county considers 63 municipal, 47 residential and 28 commercial. While several residential developments are popping up along the trail, the county commission would like to see greater consideration for commercial connections.
“We understood the board expressed the desire to facilitate commercial connections, when appropriate, to enhance community and public enjoyment,” said Fowler. “We also took from that meeting that private residential connections would not be considered because they did not meet the public purpose test …”
Fowler added that the public purpose test is part of the transfer agreement between the county and state, which provides Pinellas ownership of the trail. He said county officials would continue evaluating municipal connections on a case-by-case basis, in conjunction with its city partners.
Fowler used a brick and concrete access point near the West Bay Overpass in Largo as an example of a proper municipal connection and a concrete driveway entering the Cobb movie theater at Tyron Square Mall as a commercial access point. The last example was a small wooden bridge linking the trail with a resident’s backyard.
Some residential connections are simply a footpath, said Fowler, while some are more elaborate, like the privately constructed bridge. He noted that example illustrated other concerns, such as obstructing the adjacent ditch.
“There are going to be stormwater implications,” said Fowler. “The resident isn’t always consulting with the county when making these connections.”
The county is now establishing a formal process for connecting to the trail, preceded by a letter of intent to six municipal partners. Four, including St. Pete, responded enthusiastically. Fowler said Tarpon Springs and Seminole have yet to respond. PCR then formed a working group with representatives from public works, parks and recreation, building development and review services, the county attorney’s office and Forward Pinellas to serve as a contract review system.
Once the county receives a connection request, PCR will assign an advocate before a collaborative review from county departments. If approved, building and development review services will issue a permit for construction. The goal is to approve connections rather than deny them – so long as engineered plans accompany proposals, it meets standard specifications and access does not impede stormwater processes and public enjoyment.
“We’re recommending a customer service approach; in that regard,” said Fowler.
Fowler explained that if a neighborhood association or apartment complex wanted to link to the trail, it would work through the respective municipality to gain approval. He said that is due to the county owning 60 feet in either direction from the trail’s centerline, and a development’s connection must provide access into the surrounding area.
He said the critical factor in determining connections is that public traffic must flow both ways at the access points, meaning people could exit the trail into the corresponding neighborhood.
“The residential examples – generally, the property owner does not prefer that the trail patrons exit their private property through the gate in their backyard,” said Fowler. “They want to restrict the use to one-way traffic.”
Burton said as the county formalizes the process, it will need to decide how to approach existing connections. He relayed that a resident enjoyed a private bridge linking to the trail for 20 years before deterioration made improvements necessary.
“Those falling down – they really kind of triggered that process to say, ‘we’ve got to look at this,'” said Burton. “It’s in our right-of-way, and so if you don’t have any handicap accessibility, or somebody trips and falls, you know who they are suing.”
Burton added the county would review those connections, although it is not trying to stop every resident “that puts a tile down” to better access the trail.
Fowler said no further meetings are necessary, and PCR is already putting the process into practice.