A group of South Shore residents envision a unified, improved Cockroach Bay preserve.
They want to end the propeller scars that cut through precious sea grass. They want the wildlife to thrive. They want an umbrella organization to oversee the agencies that manage the region.
But they diverge on one point.
Some members of the newly formed Friends of Uzita Heritage Park want the area — much of which is being restored — to be left as largely unspoiled preserve. Others hope it becomes an attraction that draws tourists from across the globe.
Some historians say the preserve is near the location where Hernando De Soto landed in 1539.
"People will come from all over the world to see something that's historical," said one of the group's leaders, Fred Jacobsen.
Jacobsen and local crabber Gus Muench led the group's meeting last week at the SouthShore Regional Library. They're seeking to unite the region — which is managed by several state, county and regional groups — under one organization.
The umbrella organization wouldn't relieve the agencies of their duties, but it could coordinate management and enforcement, Muench said.
"It's too fragmented," he said. "You really can't get something accomplished that way."
Muench hopes that with a unified voice, the agencies could more successfully apply for grants, enforce sea grass protection and provide amenities for visitors.
About a dozen people attended the meeting. They discussed calling the region a park, a preserve or a conservation area. They decided against "park" because it evoked images of sporting fields and bright lights, which don't have a place in Cockroach Bay, the group's members said.
But when Muench listed the amenities he wants, some attendees disagreed.
He said he'd like to see restrooms and more boat launch sites, trails and picnic areas.
"That scares me because it makes me think of Fort De Soto," said attendee Bob Minthorn. "I hope it doesn't go in that direction."
Minthorn sees the region more as preserve land, not a park with concrete picnic structures and grills. The lack of conveniences now discourage many people from visiting, he said, which lends itself to more of a preserve.
But Muench said the amenities would better serve those who visit.
"You can't stop them from going," he said. "The question is how you manage it."
Mariella Smith, a local Sierra Club member, nodded as Minthorn spoke. She said the bay would still draw tourists even without lots of amenities, much like Everglades National Park.
She said that because local groups have invested millions to restore the bay, they should work to preserve it. But she hopes the public will be able to enjoy the area through low-impact additions, such as hiking trails and kayak launch sites.
"Contrary to what some people believe about environmentalists like me, we don't want to put up a fence around all the preserves and keep the people out," she said. "We really want the public to have access to the land and enjoy it."
In the end, the group decided to compromise by trying to get the land labeled a "conservation area," a mix between park and preserve.
Muench and Jacobsen plan to find an employee of the Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department to serve as a liaison between their group and the county. The group will meet monthly until its vision becomes a reality.
"We'll keep plugging away at it," Muench said. "I think eventually something will happen."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.