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Pinellas commissioner asks board to reassess boating limit at Fort DeSoto

Margie Manning

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Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long is asking other members of the county board to reconsider last week’s decision to limit boating in part of Fort DeSoto Park.

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long

Long, who voted with the majority in favor of the limits, said she visited the park by boat over the Memorial Day weekend and now believes the board did not fully understand the issue.

Commissioners voted on May 19 to enact a “vessel exclusion zone,” restricting all watercraft — including boats, kayaks, canoes, paddle boards and jet skis — from entering a lagoon that has formed just to the west of the popular North Beach shoreline at the park.  The lagoon was created as a large sandbar, known as Outback Key, that formed in the Gulf more than a decade ago and gradually migrated east toward the park, said Paul Cozzie, director of parks and conservation resources for Pinellas County.

The restriction was intended to prevent collisions between swimmers and watercraft, Cozzie said in a presentation to the county board. The measure was approved by a 5-to-2 vote, with Commissioners Long, Charlie Justice, Ken Welch, Karen Seel and Pat Gerard voting in favor, and Commissioners Dave Eggers and Kathleen Peters voting against it.

No one spoke at a public hearing on the plan during the May 19 meeting, but within days of the vote commissioners received about 30 emails on the issue. Most of the emails were from people who opposed closing the lagoon to boating.

In a May 25 memo, Long said she spent all of Saturday on the water and in particular spent quite a bit of time in the area at Bunce’s Pass, shown on maps of Fort DeSoto Park as just east of Outback Key and the lagoon. In her memo, she said she saw patrol boats in the area, “making an effort to keep some semblance of order out there.”

“Based on my personal observations, I am requesting that the above-mentioned item be brought back for re-consideration at our next [Board of County Commissioners] meeting or as soon as our staff, including Sheriff Gualtieri and his team, have an opportunity to study the issue more thoroughly. 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,” Long wrote.

Long asked commissioners to reassess their actions as soon as possible. Her memo is included in the reports the commission will consider when it holds an online meeting March 28.

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