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Date of Issue: August 25, 2005

Holmes Beach canals a 'big can of worms'

It's too bad saltwater fish don't go for worms. If they did, Holmes Beach canals would be a fisherman's paradise, considering the "big can of worms" the city study of canals has unearthed.

In fact, the "can of worms" wouldn't even be open if the city wasn't trying to solve the problem for property owners along the Sunrise basin and T-end canals in Holmes Beach to use the city-owned canal bottom for private docks. The city may have unintentionally created an even bigger nightmare, but not a fisherman's paradise.

That's what the commission learned at its special work session on canals and docks Aug. 17.

Solving the Sunrise and T-end canal situations are "easy" said Mayor Carol Whitmore, compared to finding a solution for all the issues raised in the canal study done by city planner Bill Brisson.

"We have opened a major can of worms," the mayor said.

That's because the Brisson study, along with input from City Attorney Patricia Petruff and Building Official Bill Saunders, has revealed that bottom land on some other city canals such as alongside Baronet Lane has been dedicated to the city, many docks in the city do not meet the code, and some property owners may or may not have ownership of the bottom land where their docks stand, among a host of other problems.

Other questions that arose in the Brisson study include how many docks can be built at one property, how wide the docks can be, whether docks can be rented, and how does the city solve the setback issue for a dock for the property owners at the end of a canal.

Brisson also found instances where people have built docks without permission, and some areas where there is not enough space to meet setback requirements and build a dock. The commission, he said, must address the 10-foot setback rule and the current 20-foot maximum length for a boat dock.

The commission must also deal with property owners at the end of a canal and those directly perpendicular to the end. If it's not a city-owned canal, the property line for each owner extends outward into the canal 20 feet. But there is an overlapping area of ownership between properties at the end and those directly perpendicular to the canal end. Does the city want these owners to share a dock, or simply understand there is an overlapping area extending into the canal and let them fight it out?

Confusing?

"Well, I said it was a can of worms," replied Whitmore.  The city probably didn't want to open the can, but "to be fair to everyone, we have to address the entire canal situation in the city," said the mayor.

Commissioners did agree that because the city owns the bottom land in the Sunrise basin and T-end canals between 72nd Street and 77th Street, new docks with uniform length, width and spacing should be built.

Building new docks with a uniform width in the T-end canals would create additional docks, allowing the 12 property owners currently on the wait list to get a slip.

But that didn't sound too good for some T-end residents, including Irene Flynn.

Those docks are in good shape, she said. "Don't tear these down at taxpayer expense. It makes no sense. Why open a can of worms?" The present docks aren't costing the city any money, she added.

"Why spend money when you don't have to?"

Sunrise basin property owners, who have been waiting for the past three years for a solution, had no disagreement with new docks, but owner Madonna Fox argued against sharing the docks, as suggested by the commission.

Solving the Sunrise issue, however, is easy, as Whitmore said.

Petruff's suggestion was that the city tear down all the docks on canal bottom land it owns and rebuild them to uniform specifications, then lease the docks back to the owners.

That would apparently include the docks at the end of the canal between Baronet and Concord lanes on Key Royale. That canal bottom has been deeded to the city, Petruff said, although there have been no complaints from any dock owners.

Commissioner Roger Lutz, however, said it was his understanding that some dock owners along Baronet Lane are renting docks to people coming from Lakeland and other cities.

That makes it a business and that's illegal, said Petruff. The commission agreed to eliminate dock rentals.

Not all canal basins, however, are owned by the city. Some canals don't belong to the city, but all docks are governed by city code.

And there are some "oddities." People living along 85th Street have deeds to canal docks, but it is unknown if the canal basin has been dedicated to the city. Also, some people own more than one dock, but it's again unclear how this happened.

Brisson also discussed a non-buildable lot owned by five people that has four docks on it at present.

He found several areas where docks are in disrepair, or where people are parking on a city right of way. In the Marina Court canal area, some docks are falling down, others are under water.

He and Petruff also discovered areas where some land-locked property owners have managed to get deeds to a narrow "sliver" of land allowing them canal access, but not enough footage on the canal to legally build a dock. Yet, some of these owners have a dock.

Confusing?

"It is a really big can of worms," concluded Whitmore.

Petruff said the city needs to address all the canal issues now, even if some of them - while technically violating the canal ordinance - aren't causing a problem. She's aware of about 10 "situations" the past few years of an "inconsiderate neighbor" building a dock or having a boat that extends into the property line of the adjacent owner. That violates the ordinance and the city must solve these issues before "more and more conflict" takes place as people rebuild houses on canals to add a dock.

The city also has to find out exactly what bottom land it owns and what is privately owned.

Ten years ago, said Petruff, the city's canal commission had recommended to the city commission that it conduct an engineering survey of all canals to establish ownership, but that was never done.

The city has the liability and responsibility for governing docks on canal bottom land it owns, while the city dock ordinance governs docks on canals where the bottom is legally owned by private citizens.

But who owns what is still at issue.

Brisson and Petruff will prepare a list of questions the commission will discuss at its next canal workshop following the Sept. 13 regular meeting.

"It's going to take a lot of meetings to solve the canal issues," concluded Whitmore, in a bit of an understatement.

The planned Aug. 23 regular meeting, however, won't be included in solving canal issues. The commission decided they didn't have enough business to discuss and Chairman Sandy Haas-Martens got a consensus to cancel that meeting.

Anybody got any more worms?

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