DUNEDIN — Florida's most popular state park, Honeymoon Island, should be left the way it is with no additional camp sites or spaces for recreational vehicles, a stream of devoted Honeymoon fans told state park officials Tuesday night during a public hearing that lasted about four hours.
Not one person who spoke supported allowing RVs in the beach park, and several threatened to do whatever they had to do to block them.
"This group will lay down in front of the bulldozers before we let this happen," warned Jan Allyn of the Florida Native Plant Society.
More than 400 people turned out for the hearing, packing the Hale Senior Activity Center. As the meeting was called to order, hundreds more people were still clamoring to get in, despite an order by the fire marshal saying the room could not hold any more.
"I've been doing this for three decades and I haven't seen a group like this," said Albert Gregory, bureau chief of the state's Division of Recreation and Parks, who led the meeting organized by the Department of Environmental Protection.
People in the crowd waved signs and banners that said, "Save the Park," "Don't Pave Paradise," and "If the Honeymoon Is Over, I Want a Divorce." Before the hearing, the crowd was chanting, "Save our park!"
There were tastefully dressed ladies with League of Women Voters buttons, men with long gray hair and Hawaiian shirts, birdwatchers galore and dedicated shell scavengers, as well as enough current and former elected officials to fill a dugout at the Toronto Blue Jays spring training stadium across the street.
When Gregory began talking about how camping and state parks naturally go together, he was booed. When he mentioned the DEP wants to hire a private contractor to design, build and operate the new camp sites, there were shouts of "No!"
Some speakers focused only on their desire to keep RVs out of the park. Chris Hrabovsky drew cheers when he called for lining the roads to the park to form a human barricade against any RVs ever entering Honeymoon Island. Bill Terrell warned the crowd that the DEP's leadership "truly will pave over paradise and build a parking lot — for RVs."
Others saw in it broader issues about the state's past and future.
"I have seen my state built over, paved over and drained," Patrice Weaver, a Florida native, told the state parks officials. Any change in the park would hurt it, she said, adding, "Please leave it alone. Get the dollar signs out of your eyes."
Still others saw in it a symbol of environmental degradation everywhere.
"An RV park at Honeymoon Island is like what BP is to the Gulf of Mexico," said folk singer Scotty Lee, comparing it to last year's oil spill.
Former Dunedin Mayor Jerry Rehm, noting Gov. Rick Scott's support for expanding camping in state parks, joked that Scott should visit the island "and have a honeymoon — or a nightmare."
Gregory said the next step will be a vote today by the park's citizen advisory board. If the DEP decides to push ahead with the expanded camping plan, he said, it would be put to a vote at a meeting of the DEP's Acquisition and Restoration Council next month.
Honeymoon Island drew 1.1 million visitors last year, more than any other park in the state's system. It generated $1.6 million in profit for the state, but currently offers no overnight camping, which is a major revenue source for the DEP.
DEP officials have targeted Honeymoon Island as one of the first of 56 parks where state officials want to add overnight camping sites including space for recreational vehicles. Honeymoon Island could get up to 45 campsites on 17.5 acres east of the southern beach parking lot, under the DEP's plan.
In a departure from the way Florida created its award-winning park system, the state's plan calls for letting private companies bid on designing, building and operating the campgrounds on taxpayer-owned land.
About two-thirds of Florida's 160 state parks have no camping. The 53 state parks that do allow camping offer 3,501 family campsites, and they are usually full year-round. More than 2 million people camped in state parks last year, generating more than $15.5 million for the DEP, but the state wants to boost those revenues even higher.
DEP officials pitched the campsite idea and the list of 56 parks where campgrounds could be built at a June 10 meeting of the Acquisition and Restoration Council, an advisory committee made up of state officials and private citizens. Then they pushed ahead with public hearings on Honeymoon Island and three other parks.
Acquisition and Restoration Council member Peter Frederick, a University of Florida biology professor, voted against the measure, which passed 7-2.
DEP officials "are running very scared," Frederick said. Gov. Scott is pushing the DEP's state lands division to bring in enough money to cover its expenses, he explained, "so they are looking at the choice of letting a lot of people go or selling off land or letting the land go to hell."
Gregory said if the DEP pushes ahead with the plan in spite of public opposition, the ultimate decision could be up to Gov. Scott and the Cabinet.