A debate over funding improvements to Blackburn Point Park highlighted a rift in the County Commission about whether rowers or power boaters should get priority at a key launch site to Sarasota Bay.
Following a murky debate that left both county commissioners and staff visibly frustrated Tuesday, the Sarasota County Commission unanimously approved a measure authorizing additional funds for improving Blackburn Point Park.
The project, which originally had a budget of $3.4 million, was first brought before the board for approval in 2006. However, it has been in limbo since September because it needs an additional $1.3 million to be completed. The budget shortfall left county staff scrambling to secure additional funds before a key West Coast Inland Navigation District grant expires, potentially setting the long-delayed project back even further.
Construction will be completed in three phases. The first will create a launch for motorized boats, the second will improve the central part of the park, and the third will make the site suitable as a launch for area rowing teams.
County staff went to commissioners Tuesday to request an additional $813,702 to advance the project through phase one. That still leaves a $515,000 funding shortfall to complete the project’s third phase, which would leave several of the rowing community’s needs at the site — including restrooms, a floating dock and a storage facility — temporarily unfunded.
Staff attributed the budget shortfall to recent increases in construction materials costs, as well as a resurgent construction industry that spurred higher bids than staff originally projected.
Confusion over the exact sum of money needed to get the project back on track as well as the specific components needed by both the powerboat and rowing communities prompted a testy, 30-minute back-and-forth between county commissioners and staff, which at times left both sides shaking their heads in confusion and frustration.
“This has kind of gotten murky with me,” County Commissioner Carolyn Mason said.
“We’re going about this the wrong way,” County Commissioner Joe Barbetta added.
Sarasota County purchased the property of the site, which sits west of the historic swivel bridge leading to Casey Key, for $16 million in 2006.
The County Commission awarded the $4.7 million project’s construction contract to Willis A. Smith Construction Inc. in September. The project is funded through a combination of state and local grants and Sarasota County surtax revenue.
County commissioners clashed Tuesday about whether the project’s priorities should shift to prioritize the needs of the area’s rowing community over the need for a motorized vessel launch at the site, which was the project’s priority when the property was purchased.
Barbetta said the project’s priorities should be swapped to favor the needs of the rowing community over powerboat owners.
“We gotta wake up and say times have changed, and we need to reprioritize,” Barbetta said. “This would be the most expensive power boat launch in the state of Florida … there’s no demand that I can see, and rowing has skyrocketed.”
Other commissioners disagreed.
“I appreciate what Commissioner Barbetta is trying to do here,” Commissioner Charles Hines said, “but we need motorized boat launches in this part of the county.”
Commissioner Nora Patterson acknowledged powerboat ownership had declined during the recession, but cautioned against assuming the shift was permanent.
“With the recession a lot of people sold their boats; that’s going to come back pretty fast with the resurgence of the economy,” Patterson said. “We purchased this whole property with … power boaters in mind.”
Area rowing advocates also spoke out Tuesday, pushing for commissioners to find a way to fund all of the components needed to make the site safe for youth rowing programs.
Rita Ferrandino, chairwoman of the Sarasota County Democratic Party, spoke on behalf of the area rowing community in support of funding all three phases of construction.
“We would prefer having the $1.7 million billed out as discussed,” Ferrandino said, referring to $1.7 million in county surtax revenue earmarked for the project.
It was not immediately clear Tuesday from where funds to cover the remaining budget shortfall would be drawn.
Sarasota County staff said that reorganizing the park’s construction priorities to favor the phase three rowing components would put its grant money in jeopardy. Of primary concern was a $500,000 grant that was tied to phase one construction.
Barbetta pushed back against letting $500,000 in grant money drive the priorities of the nearly $5 million project.
“It seems like we’re locked in to phase one,” Barbetta said. “Our priorities are a little out of whack. Spend the grant where it’s supposed to be spent, but don’t let it control the rest of the project.”
The board ultimately reached a compromise, however, moving the project forward by allocating the additional funds necessary to complete phase one, which will include the powerboat road, and instructing county staff to return with a proposal “as soon as possible” to secure funding to complete the minimum requirements for which area rowing teams, including Sarasota Scullers and Sarasota Crew, have asked.
“I hope we can give the rowers what they need since the sport has exploded since 2008,” Mason said.
As county commissioners debate the priorities of Blackburn Point Park, neighbors of the nearby Bay Preserve in Osprey claim Sarasota Crew has outgrown its facility there and needs to move its operation elsewhere.
The Sarasota County Commission’s consideration of a seemingly minor zoning amendment concerning the Bay Preserve at a March 16 meeting became ground zero for an impassioned debate that pitted supporters of Sarasota Crew against neighbors living along Palmetto Avenue — the one-lane road that serves as the site’s exit — who claim the team has created an unsafe amount of traffic on the road.
“I am incredibly worried about the future of this neighborhood,” said Ricky Perrone, who lives near the Bay Preserve, speaking at the March 16 meeting.
The team has grown from 70 to 290 members since it moved into its facilities at Bay Preserve in Osprey in 2009.
“Move it somewhere else; it’s too big,” said a Palmetto Avenue resident at meeting. “It’s outgrown this tiny strip of land.”
County Commissioner Nora Patterson suggested the team potentially move a portion of its operations to another site.
“This is a bad collision,” Patterson said.
The use of Blackburn Park, however, would be problematic, according to Sarasota Crew, because that location has already been claimed by Sarasota Crew’s hometown rival — Sarasota Scullers.
Christine Johnson, president of the Conservation Foundation, which runs the Bay Preserve, said she had already reached out to neighbors to find ways to mitigate the effects of noise and traffic.
“We were completely blindsided by our neighbors’ comments,” Johnson said. “If they have a concern, bring it to us … We want to work with the few neighbors who have valid complaints.”
Sarasota Crew board member John Leeming said the team had invested more than $300,000 in its Bay Preserve facility, and pointed to three high schoolers on the team who were selected to attend military service academies as proof of the program’s merit.
“Our success and our sensitivity to our neighbors will be our priority,” Leeming said.
In response to neighborhood concerns, Sarasota Crew has since implemented a new parking plan and instituted an online signup system to schedule one parent to direct traffic at the facility each day. And, according to a team administrator, all high school rowers with their own transportation enter, park and exit through the Historic Spanish Point entrance and never drive down Palmetto Avenue, which is only used as an exit route for parents picking up their children.
The team also recently spent $45,000 to improve a two-lane parent pickup lane at the site.
“We’ve always been good neighbors,” Sarasota Crew board member Michael Taaffe said, “and we should be allowed to stay there.”
Click here to view a map od Blackburn Point Park.
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