Ed Turanchik says Audubon's objections on ferry plan have "no basis in fact."

An environmental study analyzing the proposed public/private high-speed ferry service in Hillsborough County that ultimately could make its way to St. Petersburg is due to be released soon. Supporters of the proposal hope that its results will alleviate concerns registered by County Commissioners last week, when they voted to have the organizers behind the proposal search for an alternative site in the southern part of the county that would hold a terminal and parking lot.

Currently the plan is for that terminal to be housed on the Fred and Idah Schultz preserve, but after objections were raised by environmental groups about the site, most notably Audubon Florida, Commissioner Sandy Murman concurred, saying last week, "You shouldn’t be paving over pristine lands."

The board then backed Murman's proposal to have the private operator working with the county, HMS Ferries, begin searching for an alternative site. But HMS' local representative, former Commissioner Ed Turanchik, says he understands the board's move in reaction to the newly noted opposition, but says the objections by Audubon have "no basis in fact."

In an interview on Friday, Turanchik said he's convinced at the end of the day "everything will be fine," and reiterates that he and his team did a thorough search over the past year to find a location for a terminal and parking lot for the proposed ferry service, which would initially run from a South County location near Gibsonton to MacDill Air Force Base, and ultimately connect  to downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg.

"Our agreement with the County Commission is to see if they can develop Schultz because that's the site that works. It's really that simple," he says, adding that there were 14 different sites reviewed before Schultz was selected. He says the first choice of Audubon and his own group was to build on Port Redwing, but because of a number of reasons — many regarding security issues — that location is simply not viable.

Turanchik admits he feels a bit "bushwacked" by Audubon's opposition, which he maintains is newfound. An email from Anne Paul, Audobon's regional coordinator in the Tampa Bay area, dated October 30, 2012, mentions three possible sites that Turanchik's group should look at, including "a dock site on west end of the Fred and Ida Schultz Nature Preserve." Paul later writes that it "would be a really good project. You could even probably get some RESTORE funding for a multi-benefit project like this."

Audubon's Charles Lee has told the Tampa Tribune that Turnachik was "misrepresenting conversations" that he had with Paul back in 2012, saying that "the ferry terminal being discussed was either completely different" or that he hadn’t revealed to Paul that there was going to be a 1,500-car parking lot to serve the commuters taking the ferry to MacDill Air Force Base. But in that same email Paul writes, "You would need to install a road to the dock region and parking sufficient for your MacDill passengers and beach park and fishing pier users." 

The Fred and Ida Schultz Preserve is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). Turanchik and HMS brought in a third partner, the South Swell Development Group, to work out a land swap; in exchange for 46 acres of environmentally sensitive land owned by South Swell, SFWMD would give the ferry team 20 acres of the Schultz Preserve to be renamed Schultz Park (Update: Ed Turanchik emailed us after the story posted to emphasize that Shultz "will remain in the public realm, it will not be conveyed to any private partner. So we are not looking to own or have conveyed to us 20 acres of land. We will need an appropriate lease for ferry and concession facilities, the terms and conditions of which would be worked out during the next phase.").

Turanchik got early buy-in from the Tampa Bay Sierra Club on the plan, and he's had members like Mariella Smith and Pat Kemp advocate for it in meetings with south Hillsborough county neighborhood groups over the past year and a half.

County Commissioners approved $100,000 to study the project further earlier this year, which could end up costing at least $20 million to build.