Attendance at Florida state parks increased for the second straight year in fiscal year 2011-12 following a decrease three years ago.
The number of visitors to the 160 state parks increased by 3.4%, from 20.4 million in 2010-11 to 21.1 million this past fiscal year, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said Thursday (Aug. 9).
A DEP spokeswoman said the increase could be because of many factors including the affordability of parks, good weather in 2011 with no major tropical storms, and work with tourism partners including Visit Florida, the Florida Current reported.
“From coast to coast, the Florida Park Service offers nature-based recreation and environmental resource protection at its best,” DEP Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard Jr. said in a news release.
The statewide record for park attendance was set in 2008-09 with 21.4 million visitors.
The 3.7% increase this year and a 1.6% increase in 2010-11 followed a 6% decline in 2009-10.
The decline followed park admission fee increases ranging from 40 percent to 60 percent in 2009. The park system collected more revenue in 2009-10 — $52.7 million compared to $43.6 million in 2008-09.
State Park officials said in 2010 they didn’t know why attendance had declined but they pointed out that the record cold winter also coincided with decreased attendance at popular beach state parks in South Florida.
Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin was the most popular state park in 2011-12 for the sixth year in a row with 1,089,588 visitors. Rounding out the top five were Gasparilla Island State Park in Boca Grande, St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach, Lovers Key State Park in Fort Myers Beach and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo.
Hundreds of Dunedin, Fla., residents recently fought to keep RV camping out of Honeymoon Island State Park — and won. But, according to a report in the St. Petersburg Times, with all the hubbub, the city wants to make sure it doesn’t come off as unfriendly to RV users.
To that end, officials will meet next week to explore whether there might be a more appropriate place for a small, luxury RV park within the city limits — preferably near downtown, the beaches or other city sights.
The idea is purely in the brainstorming stage now. But Dunedin Planning and Development Director Greg Rice said he’s confident the visitors that such an amenity might bring could help generate profits for the city and area businesses.
He will meet Tuesday with City Manager Rob DiSpirito and Economic Development Director Bob Ironsmith to discuss the possibilities.
“The question is does the community want to bring some of those individuals in and, if so, where would we park them,” Rice said.
The discussion was prompted by a resident who contacted the city amid this summer’s controversy over Gov. Rick Scott’s plan to allow RV camping at Honeymoon Island and other state parks.
Scott promptly canceled the idea after dozens of Dunedin residents, elected officials and other stakeholders turned out in protest.
The St. Petersburg Times reported that some opponents said they were worried about the potential impact of RVs, generators and crowded campgrounds. Others decried the environmental impact on animals and trees that would’ve had to have been moved to accommodate the campsites.
In a July e-mail to DiSpirito, Dunedin resident David E. Thomas Jr. suggested the city might “deflect attention away from Honeymoon Island” by offering up alternative space on privately owned or city-owned vacant land.
“RV owners … want nice facilities and are willing to pay dearly for good locations,” Thomas wrote. “Word gets out virally among RV owners about top locations proximate to other services.”
Motorhomes can sometimes cost in the six figures. A luxury RV park, which offers clients concierge- and bed-and-breakfast-type services, might be able to attract some of those more affluent travelers, Rice said.
But the biggest obstacle would be finding a site large enough in Dunedin, which is 95 percent residential, to accommodate such a project.
The state’s Honeymoon Island proposal called for dividing a 17.5 acre parking lot into 45 spaces.
Rice said the former Nielsen property, off Virginia Street, is potentially large enough to accommodate year-round RV parking, but it’s so “far off the beaten path.”
“I think you’d have to have an attraction, whether that be downtown or the beaches,” Rice said, “because that’s the point of RV parks — so visitors will visit city businesses and see the sights.”
In addition to location, issues including noise, aesthetics, zoning, lighting, potential impacts to neighborhoods also would have to be addressed, officials said.
RV industry officials say the Florida market would support an extra camp space, especially in January through March, when occupancy levels are full with snowbirds and other visitors.
Florida RV Trade Association (FRVTA), which represents vehicle dealers across the state, said they would support an RV park in Dunedin “100%.”
“A lot of people can’t afford high-end hotel rooms to come to Florida,” spokesman Dave Kelly said. “If we don’t have campsites for people to come and stay, they’re going to find somewhere else to go, and that hurts us in every phase of tourism throughout the state.”
Bobby Cornwell, executive director of the Florida RV and Campgrounds Association, which represents the owners of 380 privately- and government-run parks, said his group also would support additional camp space.
As long as it doesn’t hurt private park owners, that is.
“When county- and/or state-owned parks charge below market rate, it’s impossible for the private parks to compete,” he said. “But everything else being equal, the more (RV parks), the better.”
There are already at least four privately-owned RV parks within a two-mile radius of Dunedin, officials said. That includes Dunedin RV Resort and Blue Moon Inn on Alt. U.S. 19 in Ozona, just outside city limits.
Dunedin Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski, an RV owner, said she had lots of questions that needed to be answered before she could lend her support.
For example, would the park be city-owned or privately owned? Where would it go, and how would it impact the environment? She’d need assurance that it’d be purely recreational — not someplace people would live permanently.
She’s only camped at state parks, which are in heavily wooded areas, not visible from the road. She said she’d want something similar for Dunedin.
“I wouldn’t want a lot on State Road 580 with a lots of RVs. And that wouldn’t attract a lot of people anyway,” Bujalski said. “It should be a recreational attractor versus a detractor.”
Editor’s Note: The following is an editorial from the St. Petersburg Times critical of the state’s administration in trying to push through privatization of campgrounds on state parks to create jobs.
Newly released electronic messages from Tallahassee offer an object lesson in why citizens can’t leave the future of Florida in the hands of bureaucrats and politicians. E-mails between Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) staffers as they rushed to add privately built and run campgrounds to more than 50 state parks reveal an abdication of stewardship to curry favor with a new boss. That’s not the mission for the state’s environmental protection agency, much less the state park system. Citizen outrage derailed the plan for at least Honeymoon Island State Park.
As St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman reported Wednesday, the agency’s rush to prove itself to new Republican Gov. Rick Scott began even before he took office, as agency leaders sought to meet transition team members’ expectations that the agency would create private-sector jobs or raise revenue.
Adding zip lines to state parks was discussed, only to be derailed when officials figured out they weren’t nearly as simple to construct, maintain and operate as initially thought. There was also talk of creating “pocket parks” near the state’s commercial theme parks.
But the most radical idea of all — allowing private companies to build and operate campgrounds — is what finally gained traction. A list of 56 campgrounds was quickly assembled, even though agency officials hadn’t done the requisite homework to ensure the sites were even suitable. Eventually, even the federal government weighed in, warning that campgrounds on some sites would have to meet federal rules because the parkland had been purchased with federal environmental conservation funds.
None of that, however, was clear to the public early last month as the DEP, with Scott’s blessing, pressed forward and claimed it had studied the issue thoroughly. After hundreds showed up in Dunedin to protest adding a campground, including RV parking, at Honeymoon Island State Park, the agency finally acquiesced. Scott suggested the public sentiment was too much to overcome, but the DEP is still considering the campgrounds elsewhere in the state.
But now it’s clear the plan was half-baked from the start, built more on political rhetoric than on sound environmental or recreational policy. That’s a surefire way to guarantee Florida’s long-term interests aren’t being served. Floridians deserve more from their leaders and government, particularly an agency with a title that includes “environmental protection.” Going forward, the DEP can expect much more scrutiny of its private campground plans, and it has no one to blame but itself.
A controversial plan to allow private contractors to build and operate campsites at state parks came from a push to create private-industry jobs to help Gov. Rick Scott fulfill a campaign promise, according to internal e-mails exchanged by parks officials earlier this year.
The St. Petersburg Times reported that as a result, officials rushed out a hastily drafted list of 56 parks where they believed new campsites could work, including a suggestion to somehow squeeze 120 of them into Honeymoon Island State Park near Dunedin — a number later scaled back to 45.
Park officials told the public the choices were rooted in their extensive expertise, but internal e-mails show they knew it was a rush job. In a May 9 e-mail, parks planning chief Albert Gregory wrote that the list of parks was “based on a fast assessment that was done to meet a very short deadline. It involved only two questions: (1) is there a large enough area of uplands in the park to build additional campsites; and (2) how many? It didn’t consider anything else.”
But the push for privately run campgrounds in the publicly owned parks — including spaces for recreational vehicles — ran into serious problems. Officials faced not just vocal opposition from fans of the parks, but also landscape issues and legal questions from federal officials.
In the end, none of the proposed plans will be headed to an advisory committee vote this month. Florida Park Service Director Donald Forgione conceded in an interview last week that “we definitely need to do our due diligence a little more.”
However, the push for campsites has not been abandoned.
“We need more camping in Florida state parks, period, the end,” said Forgione, who has worked for the service, a division of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), since 1983.
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After 1,000 angry residents, including several Republican lawmakers, showed up at a public hearing in Dunedin, Fla., located on the state’s Gulf Coast, Gov. Rick Scott this month killed a hastily contrived plan that would have allowed a private vendor to set up an RV camp at the beachfront state park.
But introducing what Scott’s administration calls “family camping” to 55 other parks is still on the table, the Palm Beach Post reported.
Critics call it the equivalent of paving the parks with Wal-Mart parking lots, and it’s just the latest of Scott’s public-area proposals riling them.
Since taking office in January, Scott and his administration also have unsuccessfully considered shutting down many of the state’s parks and allowing Jack Nicklaus to build golf courses within state parks, starting with Jonathan Dickinson State Park in southern Martin County.
Scott “seems to just quickly draw his gun and shoot without asking questions first,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, one of 14 Central Florida lawmakers, mostly Republicans, who have gone on record opposing RV camping at Honeymoon Island State Park. “He does. And then he has to go back and revise either his comments or the policy.”
Asked last week about the plan, Scott said, “We want people to use our state parks. But we’ve got to do it in a manner that we keep our nice environment. So we should continue to look at these things. But we’ve got to listen to the public. It’s their parks.”
But he indicated he was still interested in possibly expanding camping at other parks.
“We’re going to really look at it,” he said Wednesday. “Look at it very closely, and be very careful. I want to get that third gold medal.”
Florida is the first state to twice win gold medals from the National Recreation and Parks Association for having the nation’s best park system.
But critics say Scott, who has lived in Florida for less than a decade, doesn’t understand what the gold medals represent.
“This is an award-winning parks system that got an award not because it created RV campgrounds but because it balances Florida’s unique natural resources and the ability of people to go and enjoy those natural resources,” said Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper. “That doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not you pave an area to allow people to sleep in an air-conditioned building overnight.”
“They’re talking about putting a building with its own motor in the middle of an area that was preserved to provide a natural experience. I just don’t think they’re being honest with their arguments here.”
Florida Park Service Director Donald Forgione said the plan to double the number of state parks with campsites by having them privatized isn’t aimed at making money for the cash-strapped state.
Instead, he said, the idea is to accommodate visitors. Forgione said the No. 1 complaint about state parks is there aren’t enough campsites, and the ones that exist are booked solid. More than 100 vendors run concessions within state parks, but none of them operates campgrounds.
The 53 parks where camping is offered are successful, Forgione said. Many day visitors to the parks don’t even know that campers are using the same parks, he said.
“We do it in a very tasteful manner. We separate day-use activities vs. overnight activities,” he said. “It provides an entire other element. Based on our history, our successful history, we would only be an enhancement to, not a distraction of.”
Public input about the campsites will be an important factor in the final decision, the DEP’s Vinyard said in his letter to Fasano.
But the senator predicts Scott won’t have much luck in following through on the camping idea, because opposition came from Republicans, Democrats and even tea party members who supported the former health care executive in his campaign for governor.
“I think it can be stopped completely if those residents in Palm Beach and those residents in Fanning Springs and others come out in full force as it was done in Dunedin,” Fasano said.
For months, fans of Florida’s award-winning park system have been in an uproar, according to a St. Petersburg Times report.
First came word that Gov. Rick Scott’s budget cuts might force the closing of 53 parks — but amid complaints, Scott decided against that. That was followed by a bill in the Legislature, backed by Scott, to build golf courses in some parks. A public outcry prompted the bill’s sponsors to drop it.
Then came this month’s furor over a plan to let private contractors build new campsites — including spots for recreational vehicles — in 56 parks that don’t currently allow camping, including Honeymoon Island State Park. After hundreds showed up at a public hearing to complain, Scott scuttled the Honeymoon Island plan and told his staff to reconsider the others.
But quietly, and with hardly anyone objecting, a big chunk of the services provided to visitors at Florida’s state parks is being privatized anyway. As of this month the state has handed over the job of running a lodge, a number of restaurants and gift shops, and one canoe and kayak rental operation over to private contractors.
Blame the tight budget, say officials from the agency that oversees the state parks, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Scott told all of his state agencies to come up with ways to cut their budgets by 15%, explained DEP spokeswoman Kristin Lock. One of the ideas the DEP suggested: Turn over some operations at five state parks to private contractors.
This trend has been going on for some time as the state has looked for ways to squeeze more money out of the public’s strong affection for the natural beauty found in its 160 parks.
Nine years ago, for instance, individual state parks stopped taking phone reservations for campsites. Instead, the DEP signed a contract with a subsidiary of Ticketmaster called ReserveAmerica to handle all campsite reservations by phone and online. The move made the state money, but added extra fees onto the cost of camping.
As of this summer, “we currently have 100 agreements with private concessionaires operating in state parks,” Lock said, noting they include everything from vending machines to boat rentals.
All told, she said, the cut has eliminated about 24 full-time state jobs and reduced the budget by $3.5 million.
Not everyone is happy, however. Lock reports that her agency fields about 15 calls a month from consumers complaining about park concessions.
Three of the newest contracts were awarded to a single Brevard County company: Cape Leisure Corp., founded by Daniel LeBlanc. By handing over some park operations to his company, LeBlanc said, “the state gives up very little control, but they give up all the risk” of losing money. “The state has made a great decision here.”
But it’s not altogether rosy. “There’s a little bit of pain and uncomfortableness with these transfers, because of the state employees involved,” he said. Some get hired by his company, but others have to go find other jobs, he explained.
Cape Leisure took over the restaurant, cafe, gift shop, and canoe and kayak rental operations at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Hernando County. For that, the company will pay a $2,000 monthly base fee to the state, plus a 4% commission on gross sales through November of next year. The commission will eventually increase to 8%.
Cape Leisure also took over the lodge, restaurant, gift shop and soda fountain at Wakulla Springs State Park near Tallahassee. It has been in charge of selling all the food at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Citrus County since last fall, but will now expand to handling the gift shops, too.
Cape Leisure, which has about 150 employees, was already running concessions at Fort George Island Cultural State Park and Anastasia State Park. If other parks come open, LeBlanc said, he’ll submit bids for those too.
How can a private company produce more revenue from a park than the state? The key is expertise in pricing and marketing, LeBlanc said.
“We know how much we ought to be paying for a T-shirt and how many to order,” he said. “And we know how to do marketing. Before we took over the Wakulla Springs lodge, it didn’t have its own web site, much less online booking. Just that, all by itself, can make a difference.”
There’s more to come. State officials are negotiating with Advantus Leisure Management Services to run some operations at Hillsborough River State Park, where everything in the state-run gift shop is now 75 percent off in anticipation of the takeover. Meanwhile state officials are trying to figure out what services they can farm out to private contractors at Rainbow Springs State Park.
That the state is now handing some operations at Weeki Wachee Springs over to a private company is somewhat ironic. Three years ago the state took control of the venerable roadside attraction from a private company with a long history of financial problems. That’s how mermaids wound up on the state’s payroll.
Twenty years ago, LeBlanc served as vice president of marketing for the Silver Springs and Weeki Wachee Springs attractions, as well as the Weeki Wachee Springs Holiday Inn. He later became president of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex before launching Cape Leisure in 2008.
“Weeki, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for it,” LeBlanc said.
After the state took over Weeki Wachee from its owners, its park rangers did a great job, especially in dealing with the canoe and kayak rentals, known as Paddling Adventures, said Clay Colson, a sometime river guide and leader of the environmental group Citizens for Sanity.
“The Paddling Adventures was never in more capable hands than with the state, which made upgrades and improvements to the entire facility,” Colson said.
He’s worried about a private company taking it over again because, he said, “no one has ever done the outstanding job the state park service has.”
Rose Rocco, an ex-Hernando County commissioner and president of the Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs, said she’s taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the change. State officials “seem to think the privatization is a good thing, but we’ll see how it all works out,” she said. “Thank goodness they left the mermaid show. That’s historical.”
Florida state officials want to build private campgrounds at state parks that mostly serve as nature preserves. WUSF Public Media reported that Honeymoon Island, the state’s most-visited park off the Pinellas coast has been spared – with the help of some very vocal opponents. But the fate of 55 other state parks is still in doubt.
As Albert Gregory, chief of the state Division of Recreation and Parks, soon found out, the loud hum from the crowd that overflowed during a public hearing in Dunedin last week left little doubt where most of them stood.
“The purpose of the meeting,” he says, “is to discuss a proposed land management plan amendment to the Honeymoon Island State Park plan for the purpose of introducing family camping.”
The crowd responded with loud boos.
Gregory was greeted by a crowd of more than 400 people – just about as many were kept outside by security guards.
He then told them of Gov. Scott’s plans to introduce some private enterprise into the state parks service.
“I want to talk about how the family camping will be implemented,” Gregory continued. “The parks that have plans that make it through the process and are approved – the department may solicit business plans for a private sector vendor to come and build the facilities.
The crowd responded again with loud boos.
Most state park campgrounds are packed on weekends and holidays, and you have to get a reservation – sometimes months in advance. Gregory told the crowd the state has relied for years on private vendors to run everything from campground stores to the online reservation service.
“If we have a concessionaire that’s not making the grade, we send them on the road,” he says. “We’ve done this a hundred times, and it’s working very well.”
That was of little concern to the mulititudes who crowded into the Dunedin senior center. One of the speakers, Clay Colson, says he represents several groups, including “Citizens for Sanity.” He implored the crowd to fight not just the Honeymoon Island campground, but the other 55 parks in consideration.
“We’ve got to end this idea of privatization of public lands for private profit,” says Colson. “That’s ridiculous. There’s a reason we have parks that don’t have camping in them. They’ve actually done studies – we do management plans for parks. We have 160 state parks – about one-third of them are appropriate for camping. The rest of them are not appropriate for camping. They’re especially not appropriate for RV’s. They’re preserves. It’s a preservation.
Apparently, their voices carried all the way to Tallahassee. Three days later, the governor’s office issued a statement saying it’s backing down from the campground plan – at least for Honeymoon Island.
The other 55 state parks targeted for public hearings? Well, they’ll have to wait for their answer.
Although Gregory says the changes are intended to increase access by the public to the state parks, another official says building new campgrounds is motivated purely by economics. Peter Frederick says nearly one-third of all state park revenue comes from campers. He says Gov. Scott has issued a mandate to state parks to become self-sustaining – or possibly shut down.
“I think the agencies are becoming very squeezed,” says Frederick, who is a biology professor at the University of Florida. “They are being forced to come up with new revenue or make some new cuts. They may have to let staff go, or they may have to do a poorer job of managing our public lands.”
Frederick is also one of nine members of the Acquisition and Restoration Council, which will have the final say on the fate of the rest of the 56 state parks targeted for campgrounds.
On paper, the nine-member Council seems to be balanced between environmental and business interests.
One member is part of a group dedicated to “protect environmentally sensitive areas and to enhance public access.” Another works for a timber company. It’s chairman is Herschel Vinyard. Before being named Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), he was director of business operations for a shipyard.
Frederick says he’s worked with most of those people the past two years – and doesn’t doubt their committment to maintain the integrity of the parks system. But there’s new pressure from Gov. Scott.
“I think they’re getting squeezed here. And I think it’s a very difficult decision for them,” says Frederick. “The sense that I get is that although they’re interested in generating the revenue, that they will look carefully at these proposals as they go along. Keep in mind that we have yet to see any specific proposal for any state park.”
The state has been in a financial squeeze since the housing market bottomed out about five years ago, and state lawmakers had to close a budget gap of nearly $4 billion. Frederick says the governor’s mandate to make more money – or else – may leave very few options for the people who run the state’s parks.
“If the agencies have been given this very clear mandate to generate revenue, the only other option for becoming revenue-neutral – from the legislature’s point of view,” he says, “is to either sell off lands or to begin letting state employees go.”
DEP Secretary Vinyard wrote a letter last week saying the state will “evaluate how to proceed” with plans to expand camping at three other parks where public hearings have already been held.
Florida’s top environmental official said Friday (July 8) the state will put the brakes on an expedited plan to build new family campgrounds in 56 Florida state Parks, according to a report in the Dayton Beach News Journal.
In a letter to 14 Florida legislators, Herschel Vinyard, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said the state will not recommend going forward with a plan to add camping at Honeymoon Island State Park, a barrier island near Dunedin.
Additionally, Vinyard wrote the department “will be evaluating how to proceed” at DeLeon Springs, Fanning Springs, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs and any other park initially considered for new campgrounds.
Hundreds of opponents turned out at public meetings this week to discuss camping at each of the four parks, with nearly 50 people attending a meeting in DeLeon Springs and almost 1,000 trying to get into a meeting in Dunedin.
“The Department recognizes that adding amenities in state parks should be a citizen-supported effort and should not appear rushed,” Vinyard wrote. “Going forward, we will be taking a different approach and I have asked staff to meet with local communities, state park citizen support organizations and other park stakeholders before formally proposing the addition of amenities or services, including family camping, at any of our state parks.”
Arnette Sherman, co-president of the West Volusia Audubon Society, had expressed concerns about the environmental impacts of adding 70 campsites at DeLeon Springs.
“That’s great, just super,” said Sherman when told of Vinyard’s letter on Friday evening. “It does show that people speaking up can make a difference.”
The park service had just received approval in early June to expedite the process for adding camping at state parks, and then quickly announced public meetings to discuss adding camping at Honeymoon Island, DeLeon Springs, Wakulla Springs and Fanning Springs. Of the 160 existing state parks, 53 already have camping.
“The fact that many of our park campgrounds are often fully occupied tells us that Florida’s citizens enjoy being outdoors with their families in a tent, a pop-up trailer or an RV,” stated Vinyard.
“One of the most frequent requests our park rangers receive is for additional camping opportunities in state parks. Indeed, due to the popularity of some sites during holidays or peak camping season, campers have found it difficult to book a camping spot without making reservations months in advance.”
However, Vinyard wrote, the department’s desire to meet the demand was “overshadowed by the timing of the process.”
Vinyard’s letter was addressed to Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and copied to 13 other senators and representatives, including Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach. Taylor spoke out against the proposal at the meeting in DeLeon Springs on Tuesday night.
Taylor was disappointed Vinyard’s letter didn’t nix camping at DeLeon Springs and said Friday he’s not sure what else the department needs to evaluate at DeLeon Springs.
The community has already spoken and “does not want camping” at DeLeon Springs, Taylor said.
Dunedin, Fla., commissioners formally rejected the state’s RV camping plan for Honeymoon Island in a meeting at City Hall Thursday (July 7), according to Patch.com.
They unanimously adopted a resolution against the state’s “proposal to permit the installation of a recreational vehicle campsite within Honeymoon Island State Park.”
The resolution takes immediate effect. It cites a long history of environmental preservation and criticizes the state’s absence of any viable impact studies to support a plan high-impact camping.
The city passed similar resolutions in 1988 and 1999.
Commissioner Julie Ward Buljalski suggested amending it to touch on the issue of traffic impact to Causeway Boulevard.
“We have been fighting for a number of years about the traffic coming into Honeymoon Island now,” Buljalski said. “It’s a 30-minute back up with three lanes being used to get in … We should be talking about the impact of the traffic with additional campsites [in the resolution]. We should urge that money be budgeted for studying the traffic. I think with that being there, they’d understand…”
Commissioner Julie Scales said that she didn’t want that to be a reason to not to act swiftly on the resolution.
“I know very many people out there are expecting us to take action tonight,” she said. “I would suggest we keep it simple here tonight, unless we find something truly objectionable.”
She also suggested that the state’s process was flawed.
“People would be in here with pitchforks if we ever tried to do something like that,” she said.
“I am a camper,” Buljalski said. “Most of the camping that I’ve done have been in state parks, but Honeymoon Island is just not the type of environment that should have that type of campground.”
All of Dunedin’s commissioners spoke against the proposalat Tuesday’s public hearing with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
In 1988, the city opposed commercialization of the park in Resolution 88-25, which states that the land was handed over to the state for the “express purpose of protecting it from development and preserving it to the greatest degree possible as an example of a natural barrier island.”
In 1999, the city again opposed a state plan for Honeymoon Island in Resolution 99-19, which states, “the City Commission … does not support … further development and construction of commercial facilities in Honeymoon Island State Recreation Area.”
Mayor Dave Eggers said that the Pinellas County also came down on the state’s proposal this week.
Less than 10 hours after hundreds jammed a public hearing to slam a plan for a campground at Florida’s most popular state park, a park advisory group met Wednesday (July 6) on Honeymoon Island and mirrored that disapproval.
But, according to a report in the St. Petersburg Times, no formal vote was taken, because a representative of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which created the Honeymoon Island State Park advisory group, said a vote wasn’t needed.
The plan calls for 45 campsites on 17.5 acres. The advisory group was highly critical of allowing recreational vehicles onto the island, known for its uncrowded beaches and abundant wildlife.
Advisory group members questioned how a strained park staff could deal with swelling crowds, overnight stays and messy campground regulars like dogs and raccoons.
Advisory group representatives from Audubon, the Sierra Club and the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission mentioned dangers for gopher tortoises, which would need to be moved from their burrows to build the campground, and nesting sea turtles, which could be confused by campground lights.
The group also questioned the state’s business sense. Members asked about the camping project’s cost and what the private operators of the campground stood to make off the tax-supported park.
Tim Deputy, an advisory group member from the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (Florida ARVC), said the state’s plan could hurt private campgrounds, which often must charge more than state parks because they don’t get the benefit of tax funds.
After Albert Gregory, bureau chief of the DEP’s Division of Recreation and Parks, said the plan is still “highly conceptual” and devoid of a financial plan, group members remarked that the plan seemed half-baked.
“The risk far outweighs anything that could be a benefit,” said Cathy Harrelson from the Sierra Club. “And we don’t even know the benefits, because we don’t have the numbers.”
The DEP assembled the advisory group last month, a few days after its Acquisition and Restoration Council, a committee reviewing state land matters, approved a plan to open campgrounds in 56 state parks.
Officials in Tallahassee contacted nearby landowners, local governments, and environmental, tourism and recreation groups to recruit candidates for the 14-member volunteer advisory group. This was their first and perhaps only meeting, though the DEP could choose to ask the group to meet again.
The ultimate decision on the campground proposal may lie with the governor and Cabinet, according to the DEP’s Gregory.
If the DEP pushes ahead with it despite the local opposition, he said, then it will go to the Acquisition and Restoration Council for a vote on Aug. 19. However, he said when a project involves heightened public interest, the DEP takes it to the governor and Cabinet for a final decision.
The Pinellas County Commission has joined opponents of the plan, sending a letter to the state this week.
“We do not want camping on this very fragile barrier island in our county,” stated the letter, signed by commission Chairman Susan Latvala.
The environmental impact, she wrote, “will not be worth the few dollars that will be generated.”
Although the Honeymoon Island plan has drawn complaints from state legislators in his own party, Gov. Rick Scott, in an interview on the Political Connections show on Bay News 9 last week, said he still supports the plan to expand camping.
“We’re doing the right thing,” Scott said. “We’re going through, we’re holding public hearings. … We’re doing these public hearings to figure out what the right thing to do is.”
Scott stressed that protecting the environment and quality of parks would be a top priority, no matter who builds the campsites.
Hearings also were being held this week on adding camping to parks in other parts of the state: Tuesday for Wakulla Springs and DeLeon Springs state parks, and Wednesday for Fanning Springs State Park.
No one attending the Wakulla Springs hearing supported the plan, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. Either they opposed it or wanted it modified, the paper reported. Those attending the DeLeon Springs meeting also were opposed, according to the Orlando Sentinel, contending that DeLeon already was overwhelmed with human visitors.
Before Wednesday’s Honeymoon Island meeting, a dozen protestors lined up along the Dunedin Causeway. White sheets reading “Save the Park” were hung outside a condominium complex close to the park. One woman held a hand-painted sign reading, “Keep (Gov. Rick) Scott’s Dirty Hands off Honeymoon Island.”
No public comment was allowed at the meeting, but Louise and Ken Blaisse of Dunedin sat quietly in the front row holding a sign that read, “Keep It Natural.” They said they worried the state would ignore the outpouring of local frustration.
“When high-powered Republican legislators asked him (Scott) to approve high-speed rail, he told them to kiss off,” Ken Blaisse said. “You think he’s going to listen to us?”