Florida State Park Privatization Plan Festers
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, including Palm Beach County’s John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, is still on the table, the Palm Beach Post reported.
Critics call it the equivalent of paving the parks with Walmart 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.”
Camping is already allowed at 53 of the state’s 160 parks, but state officials in June fast-tracked plans to allow camping, including recreational vehicle camping, at four more parks, including Florida’s most popular park, Honeymoon Island in Dunedin, about 20 miles north of St. Petersburg; and at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs, De Leon Springs and Fanning Springs state parks.
The state also chose 52 other parks, including MacArthur, where camping could be added by allowing private companies to build and run campsites.
But after public hearings early this month at the four initial sites, the Scott administration is slowing down.
The nearly four-hour public meeting July 5 in Dunedin drew 1,000 people – double the 500 seats available and all of them opposed to the proposal to allow RVs overnight at the park, which, like MacArthur, currently closes at dusk and does not allow camping of any kind.
Patrice Weaver’s plea was representative: “I have seen my state built over, paved over and drained,” the frequent park visitor told the state parks officials. “Please leave it alone. Get the dollar signs out of your eyes.”
Among those objecting at the hearing were at least four Republican lawmakers.
Four days later, Scott and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Herschel Vinyard announced they were scrapping the plan for Honeymoon Island and rethinking how to go about expanding camping elsewhere. Votes on the other three parks where the plan was being fast-tracked will not be held on Aug. 19 by the state’s Acquisition and Restoration Council as planned.
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.”
More campsites needed
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.
Although no specific plans have been drawn up for MacArthur park, there is already opposition.
“It will be a total disaster,” said Cynthia Plockelman, a retired South Florida Water Management District special librarian who serves as vice president of the Audubon Society of the Everglades.
The 325-acre barrier island park, nestled on two-lane A1A between the exclusive gated community of Lost Tree Village and the high-rise condos of Singer Island, is home to one of the state’s only coastal forests, nearly 2 miles of beach and offshore reefs. Palm Beach County’s only state park, it drew more than 133,000 visitors last year.
Unlike Scott, other governors, including Republican Jeb Bush, have relied on input from conservationists when making decisions about state lands, “in part just to avoid controversy,” Draper said.
“He has been moving forward with ideas without really thinking about them and without really reaching out to the constituencies that are concerned about them,” Dreper said.