Dozens of agitated Gulfport residents turned out at City Hall Monday, September 14 to protest a proposed bike trail they said would invade their privacy, lower their property values and bring crime to their doorsteps.
City officials scheduled the meeting to outline the plan and take public comments. But many who attended the packed gathering in council chambers seemed to believe the bike path was a done deal that had been approved without them being consulted.
“This is not something that’s set in stone,” Mayor Sam Henderson told the attendees as he opened the event. “The whole point of this meeting is to get your input and thoughts.”
But as the meeting got underway, residents shouted questions at the mayor, who stood at the front of the crowded room. They demanded to know the money slated for the trail wasn’t being spent on much needed road improvements to reduce flooding. They said the 10-foot-wide cement path would take out a big chunk of their front yards and trees, leaving less room for parking and landscaping. They wondered why the trail couldn’t just use existing roadways.
“We moved to Gulfport because we liked it the way it is,” Jeanne Kunkle, a 12-year Gulfport resident who has a home on 44th Street and 27th Avenue told the mayor. “Now you’re proposing putting a thoroughfare through our lawn.”
Henderson said the current proposal was designed to meet state requirements to qualify for the $200,000 grant the city won for the trail, but that it could be adjusted. Many aspects can be modified, including the route and the width, he said.
At one point the meeting became so raucous that Henderson was forced to shout to get it under control. He diffused the tension by directing residents to fill out comment sheets with their feedback and to review books on tables around the room that showed each property along the proposed trail and how it might be affected.
After the meeting Henderson told the Gabber that city officials would review the comments and come up with a revised plan in the next two months.
“Basically we’ll take this and try to adapt it to something more functional and with more widespread support,” he said. “We have a lot of options.”
He said the Osgood Point trail needs to be completed by October 1, 2016 to comply with the terms of the $200,000 state grant. The city is contributing another $200,000 for the project.
The proposed mile Osgood Point Trail connector, which would make use of the city right of ways, is the first segment of a planned 3.4-mile trail around the city connecting to the Pinellas Trail in the north and the Skyway Trail to the east. The plan presented at the meeting entails a 10-foot-wide trail that would start on the west side of Tifton Drive South next to the marina and head northeast along 29th Avenue South, 46th Street South, 27th Avenue South, 44th Street South and 26th Avenue South. It would end at 27th and Quincy, where it would connect to the Skyway Trail.
Community Development Director Fred Metcalf said the city had sent letters to about 100 residents who might be impacted by the path, inviting them to the meeting. However, some residents apparently didn’t get the letters.
One of those was Roger Townsend, who owns a home at the corner of 46th Street and 29th Avenue. Townsend said he found out about the proposal from a neighbor. He was concerned that people on the bike path would be looking in his windows and about the loss of a wide swath of his front yard. He said he had spoken to realtors who indicated his property would lose value because homebuyers don’t want to be next to a bike trail due to the loss of privacy and increased crime potential.
Elissa Cardamone, whose home is also along the affected area, said the bike path would become a route for criminals to escape after victimizing Gulfport residents.
“It will result in increased crime and increased costs for police, sanitation and maintenance in perpetuity,” she said.
Chuck Broich, who lives on the corner of 45th Street and 27th Avenue, said the letter sent to residents was vague and that it wasn’t until they checked the city’s plan online that they realized the extent to which they would be impacted. He and his wife, recently retired realtor Deb Birchler, visited about 20 neighbors to encourage them to attend the meeting.
Broich worried that his neighborhood, which he said was “edgy” when he moved there but had improved in recent years, would deteriorate again with the bike path.
“People bought in this area because it’s quiet and serene, because of the vegetation and its very country feeling,” he said.
Birchler circulated a petition titled “I am not in favor of the Osgood Point Trail as it is currently planned.” Fifty-five people had signed it by the time it was turned over to city officials Monday night, City Clerk Lesley DeMuth said Tuesday morning. She said 45 comment sheets had been turned along with Birchler’s petition. About 65 people signed in for the meeting.