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.
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.