Trees get the ax in Kingfish renovation plans

Trees get the ax in Kingfish renovation plans
Plans are moving forward to renovate the Kingfish Boat Ramp in Holmes Beach, increasing capacity to four boat launch lanes. - Kristin Swain | Sun

MANATEE COUNTY – Plans are underway to make significant changes at the Kingfish Boat Ramp in Holmes Beach, but those improvements are coming at a significant cost, namely the removal of a well-used picnic area and many of the park’s trees.

The project’s technical expert Tom Yarger answered questions from county commissioners about the renovation plans during a May 10 meeting. He said that there are approximately 130-140 trees at the boat ramp. To make space for additional launch lanes and parking that will be lost when the Anna Maria Island Bridge is eventually replaced, a lot of those trees will have to go.

Yarger said that 41 trees will be removed and 82 will be relocated. He did not state where those trees would be relocated. The trees are Australian pines that have been at the boat ramp for decades though they are not protected under Florida law and are considered a non-native species.

To accommodate the extension of the seawall at the boat ramp, not only will trees that provide shade along the waterline have to be removed, but a popular picnic area will be lost.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore, a Holmes Beach resident and former mayor of that town, said she couldn’t support the removal of the trees or picnic area and she also didn’t support paving the parking area.

Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge said he was concerned about the removal of the trees, but he was more concerned about the paving and asked if it would be possible to replace the planned pavement with crushed shell.

County Administrator Dr. Scott Hopes said that commissioners could request a change order to determine if replacing the pavement with crushed shell would be a feasible option, but he felt it wasn’t an issue of major concern and that it was easier to launch boats on concrete than a softer surface, like crushed shell.

Van Ostenbridge said that he and Whitmore had both expressed concerns with the project for over a year and he felt that county staff was pushing the project through without addressing the issues with paving and tree removal.

“That is completely on you,” he said, addressing county staff members. “I’ve been saying I have an issue for over a year. Remember, we write the checks around here. You cash them.”

Though Whitmore said she didn’t know until the May 10 meeting that design for the improvement project was already 100% complete and that she had repeatedly asked county staff to put the Kingfish renovation on a work session agenda with a full presentation for commission discussion. She added that she was surprised to receive an email from Holmes Beach Mayor Judy Titsworth stating that a permit for construction at Kingfish had been applied for through the city’s building department. Whitmore went on to say that Titsworth had asked about the planned tree removal. When Whitmore said that she didn’t believe Titsworth would sign off on the needed construction permits due to the number of trees being removed at Kingfish, Hopes said that if Titsworth delays the permits, he would be prepared to file legal action against the city of Holmes Beach in a bid to force city leaders’ hands to issue the permits.

Hopes said that to reduce the number of trees planned for removal would require an entire redesign of the renovation project, which could cost the county a permit issued from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to complete the planned improvements. He stated that the FDEP permit had been issued once for a five-year period for renovations at Kingfish and been extended for another five years, expiring in November 2023. He said he doesn’t believe the department would give another extension on the permit if renovations were delayed any further.

“We’re out of time,” Hopes said.

Whitmore, along with some of her fellow commissioners, stated that if the matter was of such urgency, she didn’t understand why it was just now being addressed and at her request, not through a staff presentation. Yarger said that typically projects like the Kingfish renovation don’t require commission approval of the design until much later in the process when a contract comes before the board for construction.

“It’s wrong what we’re doing,” Whitmore said, adding that she wouldn’t support removal of the trees or paved parking at Kingfish. She also said she didn’t support taking legal action against the city of Holmes Beach if the issuance of permits was delayed.

Permit applications for construction at Kingfish are still under review by Holmes Beach building department staff as of press time for The Sun.

Van Ostenbridge said that while there might be a road to remove paving from the renovation plans, he felt that there was no way to win the battle for the trees at Kingfish. He proposed a motion to have staff bring back a change order for consideration to remove paving from the design plans, which passed with a 4-2 vote.