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Pinellas County restricts boating at part of Fort DeSoto Park

Margie Manning

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Swimmers will soon have one part of the water at Fort DeSoto Park all to themselves.

The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners voted this week to restrict all watercraft — including boats, kayaks, canoes, paddle boards and jet skis — from entering a lagoon that’s formed just to the west of the popular North Beach shoreline. The restriction is intended to prevent collisions between swimmers and watercraft.

“I would hate to wait for something serious to happen and the next day we’d be changing the rules,” said Commissioner Charlie Justice.

A Pinellas County map uses a blue line to outline the new vessel exclusion zone.

The county would still allow boats to beach on dry land on an area to the north and east of the lagoon, as well as anchor in the Gulf of Mexico water about 100 to 150 yards west of the lagoon. The exact distance has yet to be determined and will depend on the depth of the water, said Paul Cozzie, director of parks and conservation resources for Pinellas County.

The new ordinance was approved by a five to two vote, with Commissioners Justice, Ken Welch, Janet Long, Karen Seel and Pat Gerard voting in favor, and Commissioners Dave Eggers and Kathleen Peters voting against it. Eggers said the county was going overboard by restricting non-motorized vessels. Peters said it would squeeze more boats into a smaller area, potentially leading to more accidents while also degrading sand dunes.

No one from the public spoke about the measure at a public hearing on Tuesday before the ordinance was approved.

Pinellas County already has “vessel exclusion” zones restricting watercraft in other parts of Fort DeSoto Park.

The new zone was prompted by the formation of a large sandbar in the Gulf over the past 12 years, Cozzie said. The sandbar, known as Outback Key, has gradually migrated east toward Fort DeSoto Park, creating the lagoon that has become a popular recreation area, attracting both swimmers and smaller vessels.

“In order to get to the open water on the Gulf, you have to cross the lagoon, and that lagoon is currently being used by all types of vessels, which poses a safety hazard to swimmers and bathers at Fort DeSoto Park North Beach,” Cozzie said. “It’s creating an issue where boaters and swimmers are squeezed into an ever smaller area.”

A presentation to the Pinellas County board showed boaters and swimmers sharing the lagoon that’s formed off Fort DeSoto Park’s North Beach.

Cozzie said there have been reports of close calls between swimmers and jet skis, which travel at a relatively high rate of speed at high tide in the lagoon. At low tide, there are issues as well.

“The lagoon area is shallow especially at low tide, so it’s an ideal place for parents to let their kids splash around in the shallow water. It’s popular for children and if a paddle boarder or kayaker is not paying attention they could go right over a kid,” Cozzie said.

The county still has to ask the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to get permits for signage, showing the area is a vessel exclusion zone, Cozzie said. The county also has to get buoy locations permitted, indicating swim zones in the Gulf to the west of Outback Key.

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