Gandy Beach Access Update
by Al Tillson
December 7, 2022
I’d like to offer what information I’ve been able to gather about new restrictions on public access to the water around Gandy Beach and North 4th Street and offer hope that we can encourage some change for the better.
For years we and other kayakers have launched from the north and south sides of Gandy Boulevard as it approaches the Bay in Pinellas. We’ve also used the area around the North 4th Street bridge about 1.3 miles north of Gandy. Although these areas offer access to about 10 miles of essentially continuous undeveloped waterfront, it’s important to realize that they are controlled by the Florida Department of Transportation rather than state or local parks. FDOT emphasizes that their priority is protecting the shoreline and roadways from erosion and undermining. This concern is certainly understandable. There have long been problems with erosion of roadside soil on the west side of North 4th Street near the bridge, and within the last year storms and vehicular traffic have led to dramatic erosion of the north side of Gandy in the “Stonehenge” launch area. Much of the packed dirt access road has collapsed into the bay, and the paved bike/walk path along the Gandy shoulder has been somewhat undermined. There has also been some erosion on the south side of Gandy due to storms and vehicular traffic.
I sent a series of inquiries to FDOT seeking clarification of their plans for these areas. What follows is largely taken from their responses. I will be happy to share the full texts.
South of Gandy, the open beach near the western end of the bridge has been completely blocked off to vehicular traffic. The small power boat ramp between the beach and the bridge is still open, but parking is limited and the water along the shoreline contains concrete slabs that can be tricky if there is significant wind or current. From the open beach westward to the area of Urban Kai and the Getaway, a series of bollards (vertical pillars) have been placed along the shoreline to prevent vehicles (but not people and kayaks) from getting close to the shoreline and the openings in the mangroves. FDOT has also begun planting new mangroves in the openings and has posted signs warning against their removal and forbidding open fires, the use of ATVs, and other practices. They say that they expect foot traffic will create or maintain a limited number of openings in the mangroves but also add that they are committed to “uniform mangrove coverage along the right of way” and that ”if further destruction of the mangroves is observed, additional protective measures may be required.”
On the north side of Gandy, much of the shoreline has long been protected by “riprap” (piles of loose and often slippery rock), so the ability to launch there has always been limited. The “Stonehenge” area that we used in the past is now completely blocked by a concrete barrier due to the storm and vehicular damage described above. There is a small area feasible for water access about a quarter mile west of the bridge between the radio towers and a marked mangrove protection area to which entry is forbidden. FDOT says that this small area “should remain open for access so long as further destruction is not observed.” The shoreline area immediately adjoining the paved parking lot next to the bridge is lined by the aforementioned riprap, so launching there risks serious damage to both body and boat.
The former launch areas near the North 4th Street bridge are undergoing major changes as the approach to I-275 is reconfigured. Immediately southwest of the bridge, there had been a hard-packed dirt road and small launch area used by kayakers and fishermen. Several years ago, parking there was significantly restricted because vehicles parking immediately along the roadside were undermining the roadway. Southeast of the bridge was more access through a series of openings in the mangroves and more parking away from the roadway. From either of these areas, one could paddle south to Gandy or northward under I-275 around either side of Big Island and on to the area of the St. Pete/Clearwater airport. Especially in winter, the birds and mangroves can be interesting, and one can have the unusual view of a city skyline, two major bridges, and 20-some square miles of open water with no other humans on it.
FDOT says that the area southwest of the bridge is presently blocked off to keep the public from entering an active construction zone and will be re-opened when construction there is completed in early/mid 2024. However, unless restrictions now in place on the western roadside to the south are changed, there will be very little parking. On the southeast side, the shoreline is essentially blocked off by fencing, newly created lagoons, and signs barring admission to the “mitigation area.” FDOT says that no access to the water through openings in the mangroves is planned because the mangrove/lagoon mitigation area is required ”for environmental credits related to future project development.” Although they apparently will keep a small parking area that has been created on that side, it would hold no more than 4 cars and would require crossing the high-speed lanes of North 4th Street at a point where the arch of the bridge limits sight lines for drivers and pedestrians.
On the other hand, FDOT also says they are currently “in discussions with Pinellas County to determine if they wish to maintain any sort of ramp or park system” along the Gandy and North 4th Street corridor. Such a facility would have the advantage of more adequately protecting our access to this extensive area of undeveloped waterfront, especially because FDOT does not place a high priority on recreational usage. Access on North 4th could be particularly valuable since current conditions and FDOT’s proposed future plans are so restrictive.
To express your sentiments on this, please contact any or all of the following officers: