Florida County Sues to Halt Camping Operation
North Florida's Baker County filed a lawsuit this month to stop riverfront property owner George Bryan Rhoden from operating a campground immediately east of the Steel Bridge Road boat ramp on the St. Mary's River.
The suit alleges that for the last two years Rhoden has provided paying customers with primitive campsites, canoe rentals, portable toilets, vending machines and other amenities, despite the Baker County Commission's denial of a land use change that would've permitted such activities in 2007, according to the Baker County Press.
(A remote blackwater stream, the St. Marys River is located in southeastern Georgia and northeastern Florida, forming the easternmost border between the two states.)
"Despite repeated warnings and admonitions by the county's code enforcement officers, defendant Rhoden has continued in his illegal use of his property," states the filing.
The 6.85-acre site's residential zoning doesn't allow campgrounds, whether commercial or otherwise, according to the county's land development regulations.
The rules define a campground as "a developed or undeveloped area used for the setting up of temporary vacation or recreation living facilities including tents, recreational vehicles not to exceed 10 at one time, and similar facilities."
Though Rhoden admits camping has taken place at his property, he refutes that it's illegal.
"I haven't done nothing illegal out there," he said late last week. "I've never operated a campground; a nonprofit did that and they kept all the money."
The nonprofit group, The Baker Bunch, has since severed ties with Rhoden and the property, known to some as St. Mary's Cove Landing.
The landowner said further that it was his understanding that non-permitted uses were OK, as long as they were associated with nonprofit fundraising. He cited Moose Lodge cookouts as an example and called the county's suit unfair.
"I can't even camp on my own property and enjoy the peace and quiet," said Rhoden.
In addition to the property's use as a campground, the county's lawsuit also refers to "annoyances" to other landowners in the area including nighttime traffic, loud music, drug and alcohol use, litter, fires and destruction of the public roadway.
It cites Rhoden's failure to properly maintain the site, as evidenced by trash, discarded appliances and building materials.
Those conditions no longer exist, argued Rhoden, saying a shed was being constructed on the property but has since been removed.
"It's all cleaned up and looking good," he said.
Rhoden has until Oct. 1 to formally respond to the county's complaint.
By filing the suit, the county is seeking a judicial declaration that it is indeed illegal to operate a campground at the site, a court order calling for such operations to cease and desist, plus repayment of the county's court costs by the defendant.
Rhoden said he intends to retain counsel to contest the lawsuit.
"There's no gold mine out there, trust me," he said, adding that he'd just like it to be place the community can enjoy.
"It's the best swimming hole in the county," said Rhoden.