State to assist privatized campgrounds

A state panel responsible for reviewing uses of state conservation lands voted Friday to expedite the planning process for creating campgrounds in 56 state parks, despite some questioning the transparency of the process.

The Acquisition and Restoration Council signed off on a plan submitted by the Department of Environmental Protection that could lead to campgrounds being added to 56 possible state parks or double the number that now exists in Florida.

DEP officials say they do not have the money to build the campgrounds, but they will open the sites to private bidders who will pay to build and maintain the grounds, while the department would get a percentage of the revenue.

“The point is to increase the primary benefits that the parks provide,” said Albert Gregory, chief of park planning for Florida’s Division of Recreation and Parks. “Also, we are seeking to increase the revenue for state parks.”

Despite the campgrounds being operated by private entities, DEP officials maintain that the planning, construction, and operations will meet the department’s requirements.

Some of the parks on the list include Honeymoon Island, Wakulla Springs, Weeki Wachee Springs, and Ichetucknee Springs.

The next step will be to allow DEP officials to physically go to the parks and examine the feasibility of a campground. DEP officials would also check to see whether or not a campground would cause ecological damage and whether the site would spark public interest.

On Friday, members approved a planning process by a 7-2 vote that would require a public meeting and a vote before the ARC only if someone has a question or problem with a proposed campground. Otherwise the plan would be automatically approved.

Two members of the council argued that the alternative process of having a vote regardless of questions should be in order for the proposed campgrounds and would provide more public input.

“There is a public perception that this should be more in the public eye,” said Peter Fredrick. “It If is not, it’s not going to look good in the public eye.”

Vernis Wray, owner of Ichetucknee Family Canoe & Cabins, said that he is upset there has been a lack of public input on the idea of building the new campgrounds and argued that the council should inform people such as himself as they move through the planning process.

“It stunk the way they snuck this in,” said Wray. “Obviously, this has been something they have been talking about for a while.”

The expedited process is expected to take around two weeks and should reduce the amount of time a plan could be approved by nearly two months.

Donald Forgione, director of Florida Park Service, said the expedited process is not to avoid public input and scrutiny, but it is simply to accommodate public buyers and provide and more streamlined process.

“We’re not sliding anything in, we just want to make it a flexible process for public buyers,” said Forgione.

Meanwhile, Julie Wraithmell, director of wildlife conservation for the Audubon of Florida, said they support the idea and like that it would bring more people to state parks. But she also voiced several concerns.

Wraithmell said she is not only worried about the planning process, but also expressed concerns over how the deals between private entities would be brokered, what the impacts the campgrounds would have on state park employees, and also the ecological impacts.

She said it would be smart to “proceed mindfully,” suggesting to start the expansion of state park campgrounds through a pilot program of a couple of campgrounds and work out issues that arise.

“I’m not saying these questions are insurmountable, but they should be considered,” said Wraithmell.

By: Brent Henzi

Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News archive photograph

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