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Date of Issue: March 15, 2007

New hurdles in path of Coquina Beach Trail construction

coquina pic
coquina pic
Now and later
Anna Maria resident and native landscape expert Mike Miller offered "current and tomorrow" pictures of Cortez Beach as it appears now and as it could in a few years after planting native Florida landscaping. Islander Photos: Courtesy Mike Miller

Progress on the controversial Coquina Beach Trail in Bradenton Beach has come to a screeching halt, thanks to bureaucracy.

Construction on the 1.3-mile-long trail, from Fifth Street South to the base of the Longboat Bridge on the west side of Gulf Drive, began last month. The 8-foot-wide asphalt path meanders under some trees, has bollards to keep trailgoers and vehicles separated, and will have water fountains, benches, bike racks and other amenities along its length.

The $391,500 project is funded by Manatee County and Bradenton Beach.

Controversy erupted when a change order on the job spurred the removal of 66 Australian pine trees along the trail's route, more than the 37 trees that were originally marked for removal.

The latest snafu in the project was one of a permitting nature.

Tom Yarger, the county's parks and recreation project manager in charge of the trail work, said that permit requests had been submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the Southwest Florida Water Management District in a "clearinghouse" move.

The various agencies reviewed the plans about a year ago. The Corps waived jurisdiction, Yarger said, as did the DEP. Swiftmud ended up with the plans, and determined it would exempt the project from any permits.

Once work began, though, a DEP representative called for a halt.

"The DEP claimed jurisdiction and halted the project," Yarger told the city's scenic highway committee last week. "They admitted they were at fault [for waiving jurisdiction], and are reviewing the project. We expect to have a permit in the next few weeks."

Yarger said that the DEP's Fritz Wettstein halted the project. Wettstein is with the department's beaches and coastal systems division, which should have taken the authority on the trail project but for some reason did not until the project was under way.

Work was halted Feb. 14.

Another problem resulting from the delay is that the contractor, Billy Hay Excavating, had to pull crews and equipment off the job, and will have to re-mobilize equipment and resources once the permit is in hand.

Cost of that re-mobilization is estimated at $46,000, Yarger said, "although we are working with the contractor to get that number down."

Australian pine tree removal has prompted an outpouring of commentary from residents and others. Some of those comments have been pro-pine, while others have applauded the removal of what is generally considered by state officials to be a non-native, noxious tree.

"The charm of the area is in the Australian pines," Gail Blackmore said last month. "It seems sad. They aren't native, but there are lots of things in Florida that aren't native."

Yarger said that the trail configuration was somewhat constrained, and to keep parking at the public beach, the extra tree removal was required. He added that he hoped to draw trees from a special "tree trust fund" within Manatee County to replace the pines with native Florida shade trees after the trail work is completed.

Native plant expert Mike Miller of Anna Maria presented the scenic highway group with a list of Florida plants that he said would thrive in the high-salt, low-water environment of the trail's path.

He suggested that with initially judicious watering, trees and understory plantings could flourish in a short period of time.

"Coquina Beach should be a forest," he said, "stretching from the dunes back to Leffis Key. I don't think that 3,000 cabbage palms would be too many."

Miller even donated the first of the native-Florida plantings to the city - a 12-foot Gumbo Limbo branch, which he said merely needed to be stuck into the ground and watered frequently to grow into a leafy shade tree.

Yarger said he hoped the Coquina Beach Trail would be completed by its expected deadline of April 30.