TAMPA — Reacting to complaints from environmental groups, Hillsborough County officials are backing off their earlier support for a high-speed ferry terminal on conservation lands along Hillsborough Bay.
County officials were to appear on behalf of the project at Tuesday’s meeting of the Southwest Florida Water Management District governing board. The water management district owns the Fred and Idah Schultz preserve where the county and developers had proposed putting the terminal and a boat basin.
But County Engineer Mike Williams confirmed Wednesday the agenda item is being pulled. Williams said the county wants more time to investigate complaints from Audubon of Florida reported in Monday’s edition of The Tampa Tribune.
“Since these concerns were just brought to our attention, we want to understand them better, what the real root of the concerns are and see if there is some common ground that we can work out,” Williams said.
Support for the site also seems to be fading among county commissioners. On Wednesday, they unanimously supported Commissioner Sandy Murman’s suggestion that the county look at alternative sites. Murman cited opposition from Audubon and the Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton. Jan Smith, chair of the county’s Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, known as ELAPP, is also opposed.
“I think Audubon said it correctly: You shouldn’t be paving over pristine lands,” Murman said following the Wednesday meeting.
In February, county commissioners approved spending $100,000 to study the ferry proposal put forth by South Swell Development Group and HMS Ferries. The companies, represented by former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, plan to run ferries between the terminal, just north of Apollo Beach, and MacDill Air Force Base. The companies expect steady ridership from the 5,000 MacDill employees who live in south Hillsborough.
Turanchik said the group looked at 14 potential sites before settling on the Schultz preserve. The Tampa Port Authority would not allow a site on any of its property because of industrial development plans, Turanchik said.
Turanchik also maintains Audubon agreed early on that the terminal be placed on the preserve along with an access road and park that visitors could enjoy.
“This partnership agreement is based on a site that Audubon recommended that was presented to county commissioners and that Commissioner Murman embraced,” Turanchik said. “And we are about the process of seeing whether this site worked.”
That claim was dismissed by Charles Lee, vice president of Audubon of Florida. Lee said Turanchik was misrepresenting conversations he had in 2012 with Ann Paul, Audubon’s regional coordinator in the Tampa Bay area.
“The ferry terminal being discussed was either completely different or he hadn’t revealed to Ann that there was going to be a 1,500-car parking lot” to serve the MacDill commuters, Lee said.
Paul could not be reached for comment.
Lee took aim at the ferry group’s plans in an e-mail blast last week in which he pointed out that $2.5 million in public funds was spent rehabilitating the 134-acre Schultz preserve. He characterized the ferry proposal as a scheme to “grab the land for non-conservation purposes.”
The preserve was named for Audubon’s first warden in the Hillsborough Bay area and his wife. In 1995, the land was purchased jointly by the county’s ELAPP program and the water management district for $370,000.
Turanchik has proposed trading 46 acres owned by the South Swell Group for the proposed 20-acre terminal site.
“I can’t help the fact that Audubon switched their position,” Turanchik said. “They have their prerogative.”