Washington Park community presses Port Authority on park project

After more than three years of discussion on a Washington Park project, the Manatee County Commission again recognized Thursday what it will take to fill an empty pit in the Palmetto neighborhood.

The project will return 88 acres of fenced and flooded land acquired by the state six decades ago for a highway construction project to the once-segregated Washington Park community as a business district and parkland.

Excavated to provide fill to build the business spur of U.S. 41 through Palmetto, the acreage has been blighted for years. Neighbors see it as a grassland fire hazard, while illegal dumping has forced Manatee County to clean it and fence it off.

The property used to be a golf course. After Business U.S. 41 was built, nearby shops closed and dozens of pedestrians have died trying to cross the highway.

The commission agreed at Thursday morning’s Manatee County Port Authority meeting coordination and work between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Manatee County and Port Manatee will finish the project.

“Tomorrow there is a meeting on this project to try and come up with a plan to move it forward,” Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said. Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker will meet Friday with port Executive Director Carlos Buqueras.

The commissioners were scheduled to have capital improvement plan workshop Thursday afternoon where they intended to include it in the discussion. The commissioners agreed on several action items they want to spell out in the workshop: how much filling the Washington Park pit will cost, where the money will come from, how long it will take to complete and who will shoulder the responsibility for the different parts of the project.

Dave Sanford, deputy executive director of Port Manatee, estimated a required environmental evaluation and the permitting process will cost roughly $100,000. Baugh and other members of the commission said they are under the impression the Army Corps will take care of the environmental study and permitting process.

“It’s about having the Army Corps deliver it (dredge material) to the site via truck,” Buqueras said. “The dirt isn’t even ours.”

Port Manatee would benefit from moving the dredge material, though, because it would free up more space on the spoil site for the port’s future dredging projects.

At a February 2015 meeting of the Manatee County Port Authority, Army Corps project manager Milan Mora offered to use money left over from a recent Port Manatee dredging project to dewater millions of cubic yards of dredge spoils accumulated by the port and truck it to the park.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore emphasized the need for Manatee County to plan for how exactly the dredge material will be placed on the property upon delivery and how the dirt will be contoured to support a park and other uses the Washington Park community envisions.

“Maybe the state can help us with the plan on where you’re going to put it and another part where the county would come in spreading it out and contouring it,” Whitmore said. “If we have a plan, the trucks will know where to empty it and that will save us hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Because the project will benefit the port and Washington Park residents, Commissioner John Chappie said the port needs to help fund the project.

“We are still in the early stages, but there’s the money side,” Chappie said. “I think the port has a responsibility to help with this. This planning and stuff I’m not sure it needs to come from (Manatee County) parks; this is port material and I think the port needs to take a stand on it and provide partial funding.”

Port Chairwoman Betsy Benac noted the county doesn’t have an unlimited supply of money, but previous county park projects such as Robinson Preserve were supported by grants from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

“The social justice issue you bring up I would think that would help us score high when it comes to grants,” Benac said, gesturing toward two Washington Park residents who spoke during public comment. Eternity Temple Pastor the Rev. Lawrence Livingston has attended several commission meetings to advocate for developing the triangular piece of land between 30th and 39th streets east into a park and community space.

For Livingston and the Washington Park community, they’re anxious to see a plan come together to finish the project. The 88-acre project has come before the commission many times, he’s worked on it for 15 years and feels he’s been through the same planning process before, Livingston said.

“We’ve had a number of encounters where we were promised that we would have a park,” he said.

Washington Park and Manatee County need a park, in addition to grocery stores and other business development, to compete with other neighborhoods in the state of Florida to get families to move and stay, according to Livingston.

“I just believe this project really should not be held up any longer,” Livingston said. “I’m asking the port authority take leadership on this.”

Janelle O’Dea: 941-745-7095, @jayohday