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Advisory group echoes disapproval for Honeymoon Island campsite plan

DUNEDIN — Less than 10 hours after hundreds jammed a public hearing to slam a plan for a campground at Florida's most popular state park, a park advisory group met Wednesday on Honeymoon Island and mirrored that disapproval.

But no formal vote was taken, because a representative of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which created the Honeymoon Island State Park advisory group, said a vote wasn't needed.

The plan calls for 45 campsites on 17.5 acres. The advisory group was highly critical of allowing recreational vehicles onto the island, known for its uncrowded beaches and abundant wildlife.

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 campground lights.

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 from the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, said the state's plan could hurt private campgrounds, which often must charge more than state parks because they don't get the benefit of tax funds.

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 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 a plan to open campgrounds in 56 state parks.

Officials in Tallahassee contacted nearby landowners, local governments, and environmental, tourism and recreation groups to recruit candidates for the 14-member volunteer advisory group. This was their first and perhaps only meeting, though the DEP could choose to ask the group to meet again.

The ultimate decision on the campground proposal may lie with the governor and Cabinet, according to the DEP's Gregory.

If the DEP pushes ahead with it despite the local opposition, he said, then it will go to the Acquisition and Restoration Council for a vote on Aug. 19. However, he said when a project involves heightened public interest, the DEP takes it to the governor and Cabinet for a final decision.

The Pinellas County Commission has joined opponents of the plan, sending a letter to the state this week.

"We do not want camping on this very fragile barrier island in our county," stated the letter, signed by commission Chairman Susan Latvala.

The environmental impact, she wrote, "will not be worth the few dollars that will be generated."

Although the Honeymoon Island plan has drawn complaints from state legislators in his own party, Gov. Rick Scott, in an interview on the Political Connections show on Bay News 9 last week, said he still supports the plan to expand camping.

"We're doing the right thing," Scott said. "We're going through, we're holding public hearings. … We're doing these public hearings to figure out what the right thing to do is."

Scott stressed that protecting the environment and quality of parks would be a top priority, no matter who builds the campsites.

Hearings also were being held this week on adding camping to parks in other parts of the state: Tuesday for Wakulla Springs and DeLeon Springs state parks, and Wednesday for Fanning Springs State Park.

No one attending the Wakulla Springs hearing supported the plan, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. Either they opposed it or wanted it modified, the paper reported. Those attending the DeLeon Springs meeting also were opposed, according to the Orlando Sentinel, contending that DeLeon already was overwhelmed with human visitors.

Before Wednesday's Honeymoon Island meeting, a dozen protestors lined up along the Dunedin Causeway. White sheets reading "Save the Park" were hung outside 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."

No public comment was allowed at the meeting, but 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?"

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170. Times staff writers Adam C. Smith and Craig Pittman contributed to this report.

Advisory group echoes disapproval for Honeymoon Island campsite plan 07/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2011 7:36am]

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