A controversial proposal to let private contractors build and operate campgrounds at Florida state parks, including allowing recreational vehicles at Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin, is drawing fire from fresh quarters this week.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, sent letters Tuesday to both Gov. Rick Scott and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard expressing his "adamant opposition."
And officials from the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds met with the head of the Florida Park Service to share their concerns. The 380-member association is also opposed to the DEP's plan.
"It's something we oppose because of the negative effects it could have on private businesses," said Bobby Cornwell, the association's executive director.
A lot of privately owned RV campgrounds are near state parks, Cornwell explained, and because of the economy, demand is down. Putting new campgrounds, including spaces for RVs, into those state parks will hurt those private campgrounds, he said.
"The camping facilities are not needed," he said. "We don't need the state stepping in where they don't belong."
Critics of the Honeymoon Island plan are already organizing a large turnout for Tuesday's public hearing — so large, in fact, that Dunedin city officials announced Tuesday that it's moving from the Dunedin Public Library across the street to the much larger Hale Senior Center at 330 Douglas Ave. The hearing is slated to start at 7 p.m.
Fasano, in his letters to the governor and DEP secretary, called for halting the DEP park plan until the Legislature can study the proposal. He contended that "allowing a for-profit enterprise to run a high-impact campground on such a sensitive and important environmental treasure as Honeymoon Island is a major policy change that needs more review than it has been given."
DEP Deputy Secretary Bob Ballard wrote Fasano back late Tuesday to say that the agency routinely contracts for other services such as food concessions at the state parks, with no problems, and this would be no different.
"Rest assured that any new enterprises within Florida's state parks will adhere to the award-winning core practices that Florida state parks have been recognized for, including high-quality visitor services and unwavering protection of Florida's natural and cultural resources," Ballard wrote.
Honeymoon Island, which could get up to 45 campsites on 17.5 acres east of the southern beach parking lot, is one of 56 state parks where DEP officials say they may allow private companies to build new campsites.
About two-thirds of Florida's 160 award-winning state parks have no camping. The 53 state parks that do allow camping offer 3,501 family campsites, and they are usually booked solid, according to the DEP. 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 that revenue even higher.
Such groups as Audubon of Florida and the Florida Native Plant Society have already criticized the plan, especially the part about turning over the job of designing, building and operating the campgrounds to a private contractor.
Fasano said he too had concerns about that aspect of the plan because private contractors may not care as much about a park as park rangers and biologists do, "especially if their prime goal is to make money running a campground that caters primarily to high-impact camping."
Honeymoon Island is one of four parks from around the state chosen to go first in the experiment. Its nearest neighbors, in the Royal Stewart Arms condominiums, are among those opposing the change. Royal Stewart Arms president Alan Hildenbrand polled the residents and said he "received over 50 negative responses and only one in favor."
Hildenbrand said the residents were concerned about everything from the impact on fire and ambulance services to the diesel fumes from generators — and the loss of a precious resource.
"Honeymoon Island has been preserved for decades but for one governor elected by a narrow margin (not a mandate) it may be lost," he wrote in an e-mail to the Times. "Can it ever be returned to what it is now?"
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.