DUNEDIN —When the city’s local planning agency gave initial approval to a proposed sailing center on the Causeway in December, Kim Begay feared the worst.
The sandy beach to the west of the vacant lot at the corner of the Causeway and Woodette Drive is known foraging habitat for reddish egrets, the rarest egret species in North America. Begay, a full-time volunteer bird rescuer, said the development with children and boats around the coastal tidal flat would have been devastating to the threatened bird.
Now Pinellas County has agreed.
The county’s Development Review Services on June 15 denied the Dunedin Community Sailing Foundation a right of way permit for a sidewalk necessary for the development, effectively squashing the project. In his denial, DRS director Blake Lyon noted the potential loss of the reddish egrets’ foraging habitat and damage to surrounding seagrass, and said the proposed center’s activities and large boats would be too intense for the narrow shoreline.
"They made the correct decision and a decision based on facts, science and studies," Begay said. "You lose a species and it’s not long before we’re losing another, and it’s because of human activity. We can’t have humans utilizing every square foot. You take away the Causeway, that’s another nail in the coffin."
Kim Beaty, president of the Dunedin Community Sailing Foundation, said he could not comment on next steps pending that board’s meeting next week. But he said the foundation is still committed to building a sailing center "in our community somewhere" even if it cannot be on the Causeway.
The Foundation was formed in 2016 with a sole focus of building a facility for youth, military veterans, the disabled and student sailors who have outgrown the downtown Dunedin Marina as participation increases. Programs like the Dunedin Youth Sailing Association, the Windlasses Women’s Sailing Association and other recreational groups share the municipal marina.
Longtime local sailor John Ardolino and his wife, Shirley, gifted the vacant lot on the Causeway to the sailing foundation in December to help that mission. But the deed states that in the event the foundation is unable to build a center on the site, "the real estate shall be sold and the proceeds of the sale shall be used to acquire another parcel which represents a suitable site for a community sailing center."
"Obviously we were disappointed with the decision," Beaty said. "But this is not the end of our dream, it’s just a setback."
Begay, residents near the site and members of the Clearwater Audubon Society advocated strongly against the sailing center since it was approved by the local planning agency, arguing it would threaten reddish egrets and other wildlife and also add to neighborhood traffic.
Reddish egrets require a very specific feeding habitat of shallow water to forage for shrimp and small fish. The species is a magnet for birdwatchers who marvel at their signature "drunken tango," as they hop after prey with their wings spread.
The reddish egret was all but wiped out of the state in the 1880s, killed off by hunters for their feathers at the height of the plume trade, said Ann Paul, a biologist and regional coordinator with Audubon Florida. They were not sighted again in Florida until the 1930s and in Tampa Bay until the mid-1970s.
They now have known nesting sites on Three Rooker Island, Marker 26 north of Dunedin, and Island I-25 near the Clearwater Harbor, Paul said. Only 261 to 312 nesting pairs remain in the state.
But Begay said the nook at the Dunedin Causeway provides an essential, shallow coastal estuary for their foraging and "without this habitat, they simply don’t survive."
The sailing center would have brought up to 40 children to the area at any given time on everything from small prams to 14-foot-long sailboats, according to Lyon’s denial letter.
With only 150 feet of shoreline available for public access west of the Saltern Preserve, Lyon said the sailing activity could harm the expansive seagrass beds and habitat.
If the county had approved the right of way for the sidewalk, the sailing center would have also required two approvals from the City Commission, and a land use amendment from Forward Pinellas and the Pinellas Countywide Planning Authority.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.