A 90-foot sliver of land is all that separates Glen and Leah Bergoffen from their dream of adding a backyard dock to their expensive Crystal Beach home overlooking St. Joseph Sound.
But that land is part of a public right of way that includes a popular beach path with views of the sound and nearby Honeymoon Island and is regarded by residents of the Crystal Beach as belonging to the whole community.
The Bergoffens hoped to convince the county to donate a portion of the right of way, a first step toward building a 300-foot private dock. In exchange, they pledged to return to the county an easement so neighbors could still use the beach path that winds alongside mangroves for about five blocks.
But the plan provoked bitter divisions in the normally tranquil beachfront community that residents describe as a paradise where they get to “watch 365 wonderful sunsets every year.”
Almost 800 residents signed petitions or contacted the county to voice their opposition. After more than 150 residents packed a public hearing Tuesday opposing the project, County Commissioners voted unanimously against donating the land and indicated they will look into ways to permanently preserve the beach path.
The issue has divided this small, unincorporated community west of Palm Harbor. More than 200 residents contacted the county supporting the dock, and commissioners said they hoped their decision would end the acrimony that has pitted neighbor against neighbor.
Both sides accused the other of putting out misinformation. A poster supporting the dock was removed from the community post office because residents complained it was inaccurate. A protest sign against the dock was removed and replaced with one that said “Jealous peasants? Build the Dock.”
“The only disappointment that comes out of today is the animosity that has grown in the neighborhood,” said Commissioner Charlie Justice.
The hearing lasted roughly three hours, with resident after resident warning commissioners that approving the plan mean they would lose access to the waterfront, that their homes would lose value, and that the dock would damage sea grasses and mangroves.
They quoted Theodore Roosevelt, Dr. Seuss and Joni Mitchell’s song about paving paradise.
Some produced aged documents they said proved the developers of Crystal Beach intended for the path to be enjoyed by the whole community and not just those whose homes abut the Gulf of Mexico.
“This public land is highly prized, natural and peaceful and rare shoreline available to all the citizens of Crystal Beach,” said resident Jan Gibson. “This could destroy the serenity of this area.”
Todd Pressman, a zoning consultant representing the Bergoffens, said the dock would be designed to minimize damage to sea grasses and that it would help solve unregulated mooring of boats in the Sound.
He presented pictures that showed about 10 small boats moored near the Bergoffens’ home that he said at low tide damage the sea-bed and sea grasses.
“When tides go out, boats are on the ground; you have pollution affecting mangroves,” he said.
Glen Bergoffen first applied to build a dock in 2008, two years after building a 7,000-square-foot home, valued at $1.5 million according the county property appraiser.
County commissioners also denied that application and encouraged Bergoffen to consider applying to build a public dock.
This time, commissioners turned down the application with prejudice, meaning the Bergoffens cannot reapply unless their application is substantially different.
Commissioner Susan Latvala said she supports residents with waterfront homes having a dock but that the Bergoffens’ home is not a waterfront home because public land divides it from the water.
“This applicant shows a blatant disregard of the history, tradition and legal intent of this very special community,” she said.