Thursday, December 04, 2014

FDEP Threatens State Parks (Again)

DEP upsets state park fans by proposing marina, cabins and other alterations
Craig PittmanCraig Pittman, Times Staff Writer
Monday, December 1, 2014 6:27pm
Tampa Bay Times

Three years ago, early in Gov. Rick Scott's administration, his Department of Environmental Protection proposed major changes in the state park system — mostly to add more campgrounds and other facilities, including a place for recreational vehicles to park overnight at Honeymoon Island State Park.

The proposal ran into a firestorm of opposition. A public hearing in Dunedin drew about 1,000 angry people. After that, Scott himself pulled the plug.

Now some people who objected to those drastic park changes fear the DEP is doing the same thing all over again. They believe the agency is trying to boost park attendance while creating construction jobs, mostly in beachfront parks.

"Those beach parks are real cash cows," said Julie Wraithmell of Audubon Florida

In November, shortly after Scott's re-election, the DEP held a pair of public hearings on proposed changes in state parks, including the park at Hillsborough County's Cockroach Bay. What happened revived memories of the Honeymoon Island debacle.

And in the Panhandle, the Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park is repeatedly ranked among the top 10 beaches in the United States. It attracted more than 200,000 visitors in 2013, according to park officials, and pumped some $9.7 million into the economy of Franklin County.

The 2,000-acre park has two public boat launches. To boost the number of park visitors, and thus the money rolling in to state coffers, DEP officials proposed $8 million worth of construction, building cabins and other camping areas as well as roads to get to them. They also wanted to build "a boat dock with up to 30 slips" along with a new bathhouse and picnic pavilion.

According to those in attendance, about 40 people showed up on a cold and blustery night to tell DEP officials what they thought of this proposal. Not one liked it, especially the part that everyone except the DEP employees kept calling "the marina."

"There was no public support for the project," said Alan Pierce, director of administrative services for Franklin County, one of the public officials who showed up at the hearing.

Residents worry that both the construction work and the subsequent increase in boat traffic would destroy the very thing that makes the park such a big attraction, Pierce explained. They have concerns about boaters leaving scars in the sea grass beds and dumping their on-board toilets in water where people swim.

Another reason for the opposition, Pierce said, is that the DEP's grand plan blindsided everyone in Franklin County: "We didn't know this was coming."

The DEP's spokeswoman said the public hearing was the way the agency let the public know what it had in mind —- and what it's got in mind is trying to increase attendance at the parks.

"The Florida Department of Environmental Protection remains committed to increasing public access to our award-winning state parks," DEP press secretary Tiffany Cowie said.

She said the agency hasn't launched any renewed review of the beach parks. Regular reviews of the management plans is a standard exercise required by state law. The DEP reviews about 15 of the 171 park plans every year, she said.

Cowie called the process of rewriting the management plans "both transparent and public" because people can attend the hearings and comment, as well as submit comments in writing.

Yet something similar to the St. George Island hearing happened in Manatee County in November, when the DEP held a public hearing on making changes to three parks just south of the Sunshine Skyway. Two are in Manatee County but one, Cockroach Bay Preserve State Park, is in Ruskin in Hillsborough County.

As with St. George Island, the DEP did not consult with local officials or activists who had already worked on improving Cockroach Bay, said Mariella Smith of the Sierra Club.

She was particularly critical of the DEP for holding the Cockroach Bay hearing in the wrong county just for the convenience of its own staff, and for plans that she said would cut back on the removal of invasive plants such as Brazilian pepper.

She said Florida Park Service director Donald Forgione has assured her the DEP will hold a second hearing on Cockroach Bay — this time, in Ruskin.

The two November hearings were not the first in which the DEP's plans collided with public objections. A year ago, the DEP held a hearing on a proposal to make big changes to another beachfront park, Camp Helen State Park in Panama City Beach. Local residents strongly opposed it.

The DEP's plan for the 182-acre Camp Helen called for development of a 10- to 12-cabin group camping area, two canoe and kayak launches, a boat dock, a picnic pavilion area, a new park administration building with exhibits, new restrooms, and additional parking lots, trails, boardwalks and access roads.

The plan also called for creating and putting out for bid concessions that could offer umbrellas, beach chairs, canoes and kayaks for rent to the tourists.

At last December's hearing, local residents said those changes, particularly the concessions, would alter their beloved park beyond recognition. The DEP has since deleted the cabins, shortened the boardwalk and dropped the concessionaire proposal after what a news release from the agency called "careful and thoughtful analysis."

What DEP officials don't get, Wraithmell said, is that the state park beaches attract visitors because they aren't like other public beaches. They're generally not covered in people and coolers and dogs and litter from the snack bar. They tend to be more pristine than that.

When the DEP tries to change the parks to pack in more people, "the changes come at the expense of the resource," she said. "They will destroy the very experience that made us acquire that land in the first place."

Craig Pittman can be reached at Follow him @craigtimes.

If you go

Below is a list of upcoming public meetings on unit management plans.

•Wednesday, St. Andrews State Park, Panama City

•Dec. 9-10, Fort Cooper State Park/Withlacoochee State Trail, Inverness

•Jan. 6, Cockroach Bay Preserve State Park, Tampa

•Jan. 7, Madira Bickel Mound Archaeological State Park and Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, Manatee County

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