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Florida State Park Hearing Attracts Protesters

July 6, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Florida’s most popular state park, Honeymoon Island, should be left the way it is with no additional camp sites or spaces for recreational vehicles, a stream of devoted Honeymoon fans told state park officials Tuesday (July 5) night during a public hearing that lasted about four hours.

As reported by the St. Petersburg Times, not one person who spoke supported allowing RVs in the beach park, and several threatened to do whatever they had to do to block them.

“This group will lay down in front of the bulldozers before we let this happen,” warned Jan Allyn of the Florida Native Plant Society.

More than 400 people turned out for the hearing in Dunedin. As the meeting was called to order, hundreds more people were still clamoring to get in, despite an order by the fire marshal saying the room could not hold any more.

“I’ve been doing this for three decades and I haven’t seen a group like this,” said Albert Gregory, bureau chief of the state’s Division of Recreation and Parks, who led the meeting organized by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

People in the crowd waved signs and banners that said, “Save the Park,” “Don’t Pave Paradise,” and “If the Honeymoon Is Over, I Want a Divorce.” Before the hearing, the crowd was chanting, “Save our park!”

DEP officials have targeted Honeymoon Island as one of the first of 56 parks where state officials want to add overnight camping sites including space for recreational vehicles. Honeymoon Island could get up to 45 campsites on 17.5 acres east of the southern beach parking lot, under the DEP’s plan.

In a departure from the way Florida created its award-winning park system, the state’s plan calls for letting private companies bid on designing, building and operating the campgrounds on taxpayer-owned land.

About two-thirds of Florida’s 160 state parks have no camping. The 53 state parks that do allow camping offer 3,501 family campsites, and they are usually full year-round. More than 2 million people camped in state parks last year, generating more than $15.5 million for the DEP, but the state wants to boost those revenues even higher.

DEP officials pitched the campsite idea and the list of 56 parks where campgrounds could be built at a June 10 meeting of the Acquisition and Restoration Council, an advisory committee made up of state officials and private citizens. Then they pushed ahead with public hearings on Honeymoon Island and three other parks.

At Tuesday’s meeting, some speakers focused only on their desire to keep RVs out of the park. Chris Hrabovsky drew cheers when he called for lining the roads to the park to form a human barricade against any RVs ever entering Honeymoon Island. Bill Terrell warned the crowd that the DEP’s leadership “truly will pave over paradise and build a parking lot — for RVs.”

Others saw in it broader issues about the state’s past and future.

“I have seen my state built over, paved over and drained,” Patrice Weaver, a Florida native, told the state parks officials. Any change in the park would hurt it, she said, adding, “Please leave it alone. Get the dollar signs out of your eyes.”

Still others saw in it a symbol of environmental degradation everywhere.

“An RV park at Honeymoon Island is like what BP is to the Gulf of Mexico,” said folk singer Scotty Lee, comparing it to last year’s oil spill.

Former Dunedin Mayor Jerry Rehm, noting Gov. Rick Scott’s support for expanding camping in state parks, joked that Scott should visit the island “and have a honeymoon — or a nightmare.”

Gregory said the next step will be a vote today by the park’s citizen advisory board. If the DEP decides to push ahead with the expanded camping plan, he said, it would be put to a vote at a meeting of the DEP’s Acquisition and Restoration Council next month.

Honeymoon Island drew 1.1 million visitors last year, more than any other park in the state’s system. It generated $1.6 million in profit for the state, but currently offers no overnight camping, which is a major revenue source for the DEP.

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Tampa Tribune ‘Appalled’ by Park Proposal

July 1, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

The following editorial under the headline “Bulldozing Our Parks” appeared in the Tampa Tribune.

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, which thought it a grand idea to build golf courses in state parks, now wants to transform parks into RV lots. Florida residents should be appalled by this threat to a parks system that has consistently been recognized as one of the best in the nation.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been quietly preparing a plan to develop privately run campsites at 50 parks or more. It is moving rapidly ahead to build four, including one at Dunedin’s Honeymoon Island State Park, a slender barrier island that allows visitors to experience pristine beachfront flora and fauna.

The DEP will hold a town hall meeting on the Honeymoon Island proposal Tuesday (July 5) at 7 p.m. at the Dunedin Hale Senior Center.

But it is obvious the skids have been greased for this scheme. Scott has made no secret of his desire to privatize and monetize every state operation possible. The DEP’s advisory Acquisition and Restoration Council already has given its approval, and parks director Donald Forgione is justifying this as a way to get more people outdoors.

Baloney. This is clearly a backdoor attempt to generate revenues from the parks, regardless of the harm to nature or the devaluation of visitors’ experience.

We don’t necessarily object to the state allowing private vendors to develop and run campgrounds at parks — if the parks are carefully selected and state’s priority remains preserving Florida natural heritage for all residents.

But no one who gives a hoot about Florida’s natural wonders would consider building a campground on 17 acres of Honeymoon Island. While the park is listed as 2,800 acres, most of that is submerged. It only has about 380 acres of uplands, yet the development proposal would require trees to be cut, a stormwater system to be built, an RV dump station to be maintained and even gopher tortoises to be removed.

The park does not lack for use. It is Florida’s most popular state park, attracting 1 million visitors last year. Moreover, the area has plenty of private RV parks. Indeed, it is curious that Scott, the private-sector cheerleader, would pursue an arrangement that would undermine existing businesses.

The governor’s motives would not be suspect if he had demonstrated the slightest regard for natural Florida. He has not. He killed Florida Forever, the effort to buy and preserve natural lands, a program started by Republican Gov. Bob Martinez and championed by every subsequent governor until Scott. Since arriving in Tallahassee, Scott has gutted environmental regulations, water conservation efforts and funding for Everglades restoration and other projects.

He even looked favorably on an outrageous scheme to develop a Jack Nicklaus “golf trail” at a number of state parks, though there is no shortage of existing courses or suitable private land that could be developed into new courses. Public opposition put a stop to that ploy, as it should to this one.

Florida may need to add campgrounds, even privately run campgrounds, to some parks, but the sad truth is this administration has done nothing to show it can be trusted to do so in a responsible manner.

If Scott wants to gain a little environmental credibility, he could start by pulling the plug on the Honeymoon Island plan and then begin listening to the public. He could even visit parks before pursuing a plan that could damage the beauty and serenity that make our state parks so alluring.

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Florida’s State Park Proposal Draws New Fire

June 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

A controversial proposal to let private contractors build and operate campgrounds at Florida state parks is drawing fire from fresh quarters this week reported the St. Petersburg Times.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-Port Richey, sent letters Tuesday to both Gov. Rick Scott and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard expressing his “adamant opposition.”

He said the DEP should halt its plan until the Legislature can study the proposal, noting that “allowing a for-profit enterprise to run a high-impact campground on such a sensitive and important environmental treasure as Honeymoon Island is a major policy change that needs more review than it has been given.”

And officials from the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (Florida ARVC) met with the head of the Florida Park Service to share their concerns. The 380-member association is also opposed to the DEP’s plan.

“It’s something we oppose because of the negative effects it could have on private businesses,” said Bobby Cornwell, the association’s executive director.

A lot of privately owned RV campgrounds are near state parks, Cornwell explained, and because of the economy demand is down. Putting new campgrounds, including spaces for RVs, into those state parks will hurt those private campgrounds, he said.

“The camping facilities are not needed,” he said. “We don’t need the state stepping in where they don’t belong.”

Critics of the Honeymoon Island plan are already organizing a large turnout for the July 5 public hearing at the Dunedin Public Library, which starts at 7 p.m.

Honeymoon Island, which could get up to 45 campsites on 17.5 acres east of the southern beach parking lot, is one of 56 state parks where DEP officials say they may allow private companies to build new camp sites.

About two-thirds of Florida’s 160 award-winning state parks have no camping. The 53 state parks that do allow camping offer 3,501 family campsites, and they are usually booked solid, according to the DEP. More than 2 million people camped in state parks last year, generating more than $15.5 million for the DEP — but the state wants to boost those revenues even higher.

Such groups as Audubon of Florida and the Florida Native Plant Society have already criticized the plan, especially the part about turning over the job of designing, building and operating the campgrounds to a private contractor.

Fasano said he too had concerns about that aspect of the plan because private contractors may not care as much about a park as park rangers and biologists do, “especially if their prime goal is to make money running a campground that caters primarily to high-impact camping.”

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Florida ARVC Opposing State Park Proposal

June 27, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

The following is an article authored by Steve Bibler, appearing on the Woodall’s Campground Management website, offering a response from Florida ARVC on allowing private entities to own and operate campgrounds in state parks.

The Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (Florida ARVC) opposes a proposal by the Sunshine State to let private developers build and operate RV parks and campgrounds in state parks that presently do not offer these facilities.

In an hour-long conference call with 13 board members and officers on Thursday (June 23), the 380-member association unanimously agreed to go on record against the plan, Bobby Cornwell, Florida ARVC executive director, told Woodall’s Campground Management.

Cornwell is scheduled to meet with Florida State Park Director Donald Forgione Tuesday morning to express the association’s concerns with the plan.

Florida ARVC members feel that the state plan will hurt existing private campgrounds located near the state parks where as many as 56 new campgrounds could be created. However, the association is somewhat resigned to the fact that the plan will likely go forward.

“We do oppose the idea. However, we hope to make some inroads with the process, be part of the process and minimize whatever negative effects it could have on the private camping industry,” he said.

The association will have some input as the plan evolves, as Cornwell has been appointed to sit on the statewide advisory council overseeing the project.

“Is there a need for this? Absolutely no,” said Cornwell. “The state parks say ‘yes’ because those parks with camping have a high occupancy. It’s probably their only profitable venture. From the private campground industry standpoint, we do not see the need whatsoever. A lot of private parks that are near state parks with campgrounds are already operating below capacity.”

The association sees the state venture as a further effort to attract some of the tourism dollars spent by the 5 million campers (half of them from out-of-state) who camp annually in the Sunshine State.

The 53 state parks that do allow camping offer 3,501 family campsites, and they are usually booked solid. More than 2 million people camped in state parks last year, generating more than $15.5 million for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) — but the state wants to boost those revenues even higher.

The move will make the private campground business in Florida, which Cornwell described as “healthy but tough,” less healthy and tougher.

Cornwell questions whether the state proposal will attract meaningful investment. After all, the land beneath the parks will remain state-owned, so what investor is going to pour millions into a campground he won’t totally own, Cornwell asks. “I don’t think it will be that appealing a proposition.”

As it now stands, each proposal for a new campground in an existing state park will have to undergo a public hearing at a locale near the proposed building site. Comments from that hearing will go to the advisory council, which will forward its findings to the Acquisiiton and Restoration Council (ARC). ARC sends its report to the state parks director for a final decision.

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Fla. Park Addition May go to Highest Bidder

June 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Visitors to Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin, Fla., love picking up shells along the beach, catching fish from the Gulf of Mexico, hiking through the slash pines and spotting the birds soaring overhead. But when the sun goes down, everyone has to leave.

Now the state wants to change that. The St. Petersburg Times reported that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has targeted Honeymoon Island as one of the first of 56 parks where state officials want to add new overnight camping sites — including space for recreational vehicles. Honeymoon Island could get up to 45 campsites on 17 1/2 acres east of the southern beach parking lot, under the DEP’s plan.

In a departure from the way Florida created its award-winning park system, the state’s plan calls for letting private companies bid on designing, building and operating the campgrounds on taxpayer-owned land, said DEP’s Florida Park Service director Donald Forgioni.

The new campgrounds will require more than just the sites themselves. They will need roads, rest rooms, bathhouses, playgrounds, electric connections, grills and other amenities, too.

To some fans of Honeymoon Island, letting a private contractor build sites for RVs, bathhouses and other amenities will ruin the park, not improve it.

When Richard Selleg heard what was proposed, “it electrified me,” he said. He compared it to the attempt by legislators to let Jack Nicklaus build golf courses in state parks, scuttled after a public outcry.

“Honeymoon Island is too small,” said Selleg, a land planner who four years ago led a fight to block plans for a boat ramp. “To me, the beach is fine and the wildlife habitat is a drawing card for why people go out there. … I don’t want to see a further deterioration of it.”

The Florida Native Plant Society, in its recent newsletter, encouraged members to attend a public hearing next month to tell DEP officials there’s a difference between “low-impact tent camping or 30-foot-long RVs with noisy generators, electrical hookups and blaring TVs that disturb wildlife.”

The society’s newsletter took a dim view of the idea of letting a private company operate the campground: “Private concessionaires may say they care about the environment, but their first priority will be to push for what makes the most money, and the state has a financial incentive to do so as well.”

That worries Audubon of Florida, too, said Julie Wraithmell. “Everybody knows a private contractor is going to be looking at their bottom line” instead of what’s best for the public, she said.

But Forgioni, who began his career as a park ranger in 1984, contended that private contractors will be just as concerned about the parks as state officials would be.

“The key to this is the wholesomeness and the genuineness of our product and their product,” Forgioni said. “They don’t want to taint our brand. They need it.”

The 53 state parks that do allow camping offer 3,501 family campsites, and they are usually booked solid, Forgioni said. More than 2 million people camped in state parks last year, generating more than $15.5 million for the DEP — but the state wants to boost those revenues even higher.

“We anticipate it working like this: The private sector designs, builds and operates the campground, including collecting the overnight fees,” he said. “Then we get a percentage of their revenue.”

He said he had no estimate of how much that might yield but DEP would likely use it to make the state park system more self-sufficient.

DEP pitched its idea — and the list of 56 parks where campgrounds could be built — at a June 10 meeting of the Acquisition and Restoration Council (ARC), an advisory committee made up of state officials and private citizens that reviews state land matters.

To ARC member Vickie Larson, the whole proposal seemed hastily thrown together and was offered as an all-or-nothing vote rather than breaking the list down to vote on each park. She voted against it.

“Many of the parks on that list are not suitable for expanding the camping,” she said, naming Ichetucknee Springs State Park as an example. “We didn’t really get much detailed information.” It passed 7-2.

The idea of letting private companies build and operate the campgrounds, she said, was mentioned but was not part of the vote.

Now DEP is pushing ahead with rapidly scheduled public hearings not just for Honeymoon Island but also for three other parks that are tops on its list: De Leon Springs State Park, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park and Fanning Springs State Park. The hearings on Honeymoon Island, Wakulla Springs and DeLeon Springs are July 5, while Fanning Springs is on July 6.

Both Larson and Audubon’s Wraithmell said this push is part of an overall initiative of Gov. Rick Scott’s administration regarding the use of state lands, which Wraithmell described as “treating our resources as commodities” regardless of whether it’s good for the parks or the public.

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Florida Moves on Partially Privatizing Parks

June 6, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Last fall, the Division of Environmental Protection (DEP), which runs Florida’s state parks, prepared a plan that would have closed 53 of them to save money, according to a report on Flagerlive.com. Park supporters around the state and Florida Audubon mobilized. By the time Gov. Rick Scott announced his budget, closing parks was no longer in the works.

The DEP is now proposing to partially privatize 56 parks. The proposal is being submitted to the state Acquisition and Restoration Council Friday (June 10) as an expansion of camping and RV opportunities at those sites. But the camping and RV sites would be built and operated by private companies.

The council is an 11-member panel with representatives from five state agencies who rank the state’s environmentally sensitive land-acquisition priorities through the Florida Forever program. Florida Forever has essentially lost its funding, leaving the council to focus on its other mission: reviewing management plans for state parks and conservation lands.

Opening parks up to camping and RV sites falls under park management plans, which would have to be amended to enable the change. Those plans, called the “unit management plan,” are reworked every 10 years, with public hearings and involvement. DEP is asking the council to accelerate the process, though it would also make provisions for a public meeting at each affected park. The DEP’s proposal does not specify a formal public hearing, though that may be a matter of semantics.

“The new facilities will be designed, constructed and operated by private entities selected through the department’s procedures for soliciting and contracting state park concession services,” the DEP’s summary proposal reads. “The department will retain full control over all aspects of planning, design, construction and operation of the new facilities to ensure consistency with the mission and quality standards of the state park system. This system-wide expansion of camping opportunities will increase the level of public benefits state parks provide, enhance the economic benefits of state parks, create jobs, and move the state park system closer to economic self-sufficiency.”

The DEP will seek out bids from private industry for the 56 parks it has identified. “Based on the responses, the department will select parks to receive further consideration for new development,” the proposal reads.

“This is only the first step in examining the potential for increasing family camping opportunities,” DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in an email to The Current’s Bruce Richie, who first reported the DEP’s plan. “The Florida Park Service has not yet conducted detailed site analyses and will go through the necessary steps to determine if, where and how much camping is appropriate.”

The DEP is framing the proposal as an expansion of “family camping,” which resonates positively with park lovers — and draws little opposition from park advocates. But the essential change behind the proposal is its privatization aspects, as the park system would not be running the new operations, which could become a first step toward further privatization — a move being considered in other states, notably in Arizona.

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