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Monday, Sep 25, 2017
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Surprise ditch in St. Petersburg park leaves neighbors outraged

ST. PETERSBURG — Denver Park, a popular gathering spot in Shore Acres, already features a basketball court, baseball diamond, playground, volleyball net and tennis courts.

But the most recent addition, a ditch along the perimeter of two sides of the park, left many residents surprised and outraged.

"In my eyes, they went about it all wrong," said Jeff Wessler, 52, who lives on Denver Street.

Wessler is one of the many residents on Denver Street and 54th Avenue NE that have back yards that open up to the park. Wessler called the park the "community's back yard" and the easy park access was a major perk of the property.

Now, a muddy ditch — intended to help with flooding issues — with water runs around nearly half the park, physically dividing the park and community. Many of these residents now have to access the park by crossing a land-bridge constructed over two metal tubes.

City officials decided to dig the ditch — as much as 10 feet across and 28 inches deep — after receiving flooding complaints, said John Norris, director of stormwater, pavement and traffic operations. Norris said a few particularly low-lying houses would flood with up to a foot of standing water in their back yards. The ditch's primary purpose is to stop that flooding on private property, he said. Labor costs to complete the project totaled $4,300, according to Norris.

Lindsay Bader, 34, moved into one of these vulnerable Denver Street homes in 2014 with her family and supports the ditch overall.

"It gets ridiculously flooded back there for days at a time," she said. "All they had was that one little ditch."

Previously, the park had what some called a ditch and others called a swale. Norris said old aerial photographs of the park showed the ditch was initially constructed between 1968 and 1973. Even without consensus on its name, city officials and residents both agreed its successor is wider and deeper. Wessler said the swale used to work — before it became filled with sediment and grass. He wished the city would have just done upkeep on the swale instead of something as drastic as the ditch.

The ditch may fix the back yard flooding worries of a few homes — although Bader said they have not received enough rain yet to know for sure — but residents have raised a myriad of new concerns.

Norris said the ditch does not have standing water since the water moves through the ditch to a recently cleaned drainage pipe that dumps it into marshland. Residents disagree.

"That's super debatable," said Kelly Olson, 46. "There's no movement that I've ever witnessed."

Bader said it's standing water as well.

"Any water that is there long enough to grow the little larvae of mosquitoes is standing water," she said.

Norris said he expects the ditch to improve the mosquito issue in the long run, saying there was standing water in the park before.

Beyond mosquitoes and water are basic safety concerns. Olson said her 11-year-old son constantly uses the park for all types of activities, including skimboarding the baseball diamond when the park floods.

If her son was any younger, she'd be worried about the ditch as a safety issue — something a child could unwittingly fall into and potentially get hurt.

The ditch has no warning signs, fencing or anything to prevent someone from entering. Norris, the city official, said there was no precedent to protect ditches from pedestrian traffic and had no plans to add fencing or a similar safety measure.

Others were dismayed with the new muddy aesthetic to an otherwise picturesque park. Wessler said it could hurt property values. Others called it a mud pit.

Norris said more work would be done during the drier winter season, including refining the ditch and grading some of the land. It will be regularly mowed and inspected to ensure it remains functional, he added.

"It's one of those situations where, unfortunately, we can't do everything all at once to please everyone," said Bill Logan, the city's Public Works Administration spokesman.

Beyond objections involving mosquitoes, safety, property values and aesthetics, one common theme that flummoxed residents was the lack of communication from the city.

"One day, I just saw these huge trucks and they just digging," Olson said. "I was thinking, 'What are they doing?'"

City officials provided no notice to residents of what they were doing beforehand, residents said.

"They just started this without letting anyone know," Olson said.

Norris responded to this criticism by saying they typically provide advance notice if it limits access to their property, such as a road closure. Since it was work done only on a city park and did not limit access, they did not provide advance notification.

Bader said she wished she was at least aware of what the city planned on doing.

"Nobody said anything to anybody," Bader said. "I think they should have probably talked to us."

And Bader is one of the few homes that made out the best. Her home had the backyard flooding issue, and the deepest parts of the ditch are on the other side of the park away from her property. Still, Bader said she understands the local outrage.

"The ditch doesn't come to my house, so it doesn't bother me," she said. "I would've been really angry if it had been in front of my house."

Norris said the ditch was a necessity to get the water out of those northeast properties and there was no solution that would fix all problems.

"I can't make everyone happy," he said. "I understand their concerns."

Contact Andrew Dunn at adunn@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewE_Dunn.

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