Opponents of the Lens project said it would lead to overfishing in areas designated for anglers and that allowing boats to dock at the pier would put manatees at risk. LUKE JOHNSON/STAFF
BY CHRISTOPHER O'DONNELL Tribune staff
Published: June 5, 2013
Updated: June 6, 2013 at 01:50 PM
TAMPA - St. Petersburg's Pier may be closed, but the battle to save it from demolition is still being waged.
Pier fans and critics of the proposed new pier known as the Lens on Wednesday called on the Southwest Florida Water Management District to deny the city the permit it needs to tear down the inverted pyramid pier.
The agency, commonly known as Switmud, is seen as one of the best hopes of saving the 40-year-old pier that was shuttered to the public Friday. It rules on permit applications based on whether projects will adversely affect water quality.
Fewer than a dozen residents made the trip across Tampa Bay for Wednesday's public hearing, which was held a few miles south of Temple Terrace on U.S. 301.
So far, criticisms of the $50-million Lens project have focused on it futuristic design, lack of stores and restaurants and doubts that it can withstand storms and saltwater erosion.
The focus Wednesday was on environmental concerns, with opponents saying demolition would endanger marine life that swim under the pier and destroy habitat including, sea grasses and oyster beds. They warned that the Lens would lead to overfishing in areas designated for anglers and that allowing boats to dock at the pier would put manatees at risk. "There is marine life and species that have been that have made a life around and under the St. Petersburg Pier," said St. Petersburg resident James DeRusha. "They've been given an eviction notice."
Mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford, who is appealing a judge's ruling allowing the city to demolish The Pier without a referendum, said Swiftmud should wait for the outcome of her appeal and the Aug. 27 referendum when residents will vote on whether to move forward with the Lens.
"We love our waterfront; we care about it," she said. "I hope you will find a way to defer this until those two things have been resolved."
Downtown St. Petersburg resident Hal Freedman was the only Lens supporter at the meeting.
He said the new pier would allow more sunlight to reach sea grass beds and reduce discharge of oil and dirt into the bay because only service vehicles and trolleys would use the over-water walkways to the Lens.
"All the environmental pollutants that run off the Pier approach will no longer be there," Freedman said.
Manatees and small tooth sawfish - both endangered species - are known to swim in the waters around the Pier.
The city's demolition plan details several safeguards for marine life and water quality.
Work would be temporarily suspended if manatees are spotted. Construction barges will be prohibited from working or anchoring within 20 feet of sea grass beds. Workers will install "turbidity curtains" to contain the spread of dust and debris. A third-party company will monitor water quality and suspend work if measurements show too much impact on the water, the city's demolition application states.
The city also needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before it can proceed with demolition and approval from Pinellas County before it begins construction, certifying that the Lens complies with county water and navigation guidelines.
City officials have said they expect to have approval to begin demolition by August, but that may be optimistic.
Its application to the Army Corps is still under review, and officials there are still awaiting comments from federal agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Also, Swiftmud staff will review the concerns raised at today's public meeting and may seek further clarification from city staff, said Susanna Martinez Tarokh, the agency's public information officer.
If there are no delays, Swiftmud regulatory staff could make a ruling on the city's application by the end of July, she said.