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Apollo Beach dredging project to provide boating, beach access

— South County should soon have its beach back, one of the few recreational shorelines on Tampa Bay’s eastern side and a decades-old perch for sun bathers and sunset oglers. And area property owners should again have unimpeded paths on which to navigate large boats into the bay.

The Tampa Port Authority board last week, approved modifications to a dredging permit, one of four permits needed for the project, and one of the final steps toward completing the task. Once the work is done, three channels leading to the area will go from about 4 feet in depth to about 71/2 feet deep at low tide, opening up access for yachts and sailboats that right now have to wait for high tide to get in and out of the area.

The project to replace the eroded shoreline at the 60-acre Apollo Beach Nature Preserve and dredge nearby channels for boaters is not just about lifestyle, however. It’s also about property value, prompting some big guns to donate toward the effort.

Erosion has taken most of the two-acre beach at the nature preserve and the three channels leading into nearby residential areas haven’t been dredged in two decades. Hillsborough County kicked in $850,000 to construct breakwaters around the park meant to keep erosion at bay and also donated $50,000 toward the channel dredging. But the real responsibility for channel maintenance lies with area property owners. To get the work done, nearby land owners had to come up with $300,000.

“It’s about property values and maintaining a way of life,” said Len Berkstresser, president of the Apollo Beach Waterway Improvement Group, or ABWIG, which led the effort. “If boats can’t get in and out, nobody is going to buy a house back there.”

The Mosaic Co., Tampa Electric Co. and a coalition of Mira Bay community groups each donated $50,000, with the Symphony Isles Homeowners Association kicking in $30,000. Keller Williams Apollo Beach and Century 21 Beggins Enterprises real estate offices each donated $10,000 and Lands End Marina, Circles Restaurant and the Tampa Sailing Squadron each gave $2,500. The rest was raised through various fund raising events held over the past couple of years.

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Of the 2,600 or so waterfront homeowners in the Apollo Beach area, most own boats, said Craig Beggins, owner of Century 21 Beggins Enterprises and an area boat owner himself. Of those, about 30 percent of the boats are over 40 feet and can only get in and out of their home docks at high tide.

“I have no problems getting in and out” with a 27-foot boat, Beggins said. “But I end up towing the sailboats because they get stuck around Marker 4 in the main channel, where there is a shoal that gets to four feet at low tide. Any boat that draws more than four feet has to wait on the tide to get out and then to get back in.”

David Ewing, who owns a 60-foot Hyatt Motor Yacht called Last Stop, said it has literally been stuck in port for 18 months, due to the shallow channels.

“We’ve traveled on this particular boat at least 10,000 miles, but now I can’t go a mile to get out of my channel,” Ewing said. After running aground several times, even at high tide, even doing damage to one of the boat’s engines, Ewing said he had to have the vessel towed to a boat yard in St. Petersburg and didn’t get the yacht back to Apollo Beach for six months. He waited for an extra high tide during a storm to get it back home.

“I’m very anxious to write Len a check for the ABWIG fund the day the dredging starts,” Ewing said.

As a realtor, Beggins said he has had to turn away big boat owners looking for property in the area. When they find out about the channel issues, he said, they walk.

“The affluent boating community with big motor yachts would not choose to move to Apollo Beach because of the tide issue. If you have a 55 foot yacht and you are looking for a place, I have to turn you away. It is keeping values down because wealthier people won’t buy here.”

In addition to the dredging work, this project is also about bringing back a well-used, well-appreciated beach, said Ross Dickerson, environmental lands manager for the county. “The beach was definitely used by everyone in the area. It’s still a very popular spot for fishing, sunsets and everything.” Use hasn’t really dropped as a result of the erosion, but user space has, he said. The beach is pretty much gone.

The breakwaters will be completed by the end of this month, he said, and as dredging begins, some 11,000 cubic yards of sand will be dumped on to the Apollo Beach Nature Preserve to re-contour the beach.

The work also includes dune restoration and native plantings along the shoreline.

Dickerson said the project is expected to be complete by Memorial Day weekend at the end of May. The preserve has been closed since late last year to make way for the construction project.

“The erosion got much worse in that area in 2004 when four hurricanes passed over the area,” he said. “Everyone south of the preserve hardened their shoreline with riprap. Once that happened, the natural sediment that used to go from south to north would start at the south end of the preserve and go to the north side. So, the preserve has grown to the north with all that sand that was once on the south end.”

While nothing can completely stop erosion, the breakwaters should hold the sand in place for much longer than if the shoreline were left exposed, Dickerson said.

While the project is moving along, ABWIG was hit with a few surprises, Berkstresser said. “There’s $5,000 for the state (Department of Environmental Protection) permit, $9,000 to replace the sidewalk at the preserve and $8,000 for planting at the preserve.”

Because the sand from dredging will be piled at the park, the sidewalk and plants in that spot will be destroyed, he said, and the group is short about $35,000.

“We’re still looking for donations that can be made through our website or on Facebook.” There is another fund raiser planned for May 17 at the Tampa Sailing Squadron, called Brews, Bands and FTs (food trucks). Final details for the event will be posted on ABWIG’s website at www.abwig.org and on its facebook page. The event will run from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the squadron, 1250 Apollo Beach Blvd, Ruskin.

Berkstresser said he and other property owners in the area are hoping this will be the last time they are on the hook for the cost of dredging the area’s channels. “I’ve put in 41/2 years of volunteer time on this and the county has put $1.3 million in for jetties and riprap. You are never, ever going to get a group of seven people to volunteer 41/2 years again to raise money to do this. We all pay taxes and those of us who live there on the water pay more taxes. And the permitting process is unbelievably difficult.” The county needs to take back responsibility for the dredging he said.

Hillsborough County Commission Chair Sandy Murman, who also sits on the port board, said last week she was thrilled to see the project come to fruition.

“It’s a significant project that will have a tremendous impact for the South County and it will help promote ecotourism,” Murman said. “They are really getting their beach back.”

Murman said the beach will eventually tie in to a 95-acre park south of the Tampa Electric Co.’s Big Bend Power Station that will include the Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation, a state hatchery for snook, redfish and trout and kayak and walking trails.

She said this project had already gotten underway when the county began developing a plan to make it easier to pay for such projects. ‘We did give money for this, but the county staff is finalizing a policy the county commission approved to allow communities to develop Municipal Service Benefit Units.” The MSBUs would allow residents to pay for projects like dredging or stormwater drainage through their utility bills.

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