State Panel Questions Florida's Privatization Plan
Less than 10 hours after a crowd jammed a public hearing to slam a plan for campsites at Florida's most popular state park, a newly appointed park advisory group met on Honeymoon Island and mirrored that disapproval.
Unlike Tuesday's (July 5) hearing, during which hundreds filled the Hale Senior Activity Center with chants to "Save our park," today's meeting of a state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) advisory group was more restrained, the St. Petersburg Times reported.
But the Honeymoon Island State Park advisory group, which was appointed just last month to review the campground plan, was still highly critical of allowing recreational vehicles onto the island, known for its uncrowded beaches and abundant wildlife.
Many of the sticking points hinged on environmental concerns. 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 lights from the campsites.
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 representing the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, said the state's proposed expansion of "family camping" in state parks could hurt private campgrounds, which often must charge more than the state parks do for camping because they don't get the benefit of tax funding.
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, a group member 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 the plan to open campgrounds in 56 state parks. The state suggests that Honeymoon Island's camping area of 45 campsites spanning 17 1/2 acres near a beach parking lot, would be among the first to open.
Officials in Tallahassee contacted nearby landowners, local governments, and environmental, tourism and recreation groups in making appointments to the 14-member volunteer advisory group. This was their first and perhaps only meeting, and members were asked not to vote on a position. If the DEP chooses, the group will meet again next month and vote.
Public comment was not allowed at the meeting, but that didn't stop about a dozen protestors from lining the Dunedin Causeway and the park entrance. White sheets reading "Save the Park" were hung outside Royal Stewart Arms, 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."
Held at the island's Rotary Centennial Nature Center, the meeting ended in half the time of Tuesday's four-hour marathon.
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?"