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Visitors swallow first day of $5 fee at Fort De Soto in Pinellas

Richard DeStefano, left, 69, of Tierra Verde buys an annual parking pass from Jim Wilson, Fort De Soto Park supervisor, on Tuesday. DeStefano said he walks his dog and bikes in the park five times a week.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Richard DeStefano, left, 69, of Tierra Verde buys an annual parking pass from Jim Wilson, Fort De Soto Park supervisor, on Tuesday. DeStefano said he walks his dog and bikes in the park five times a week.

TIERRA VERDE — Mimi Reilly pulled up to the new toll booth at Fort De Soto Park with a friend, two dogs and a case of incredulity.

She had to pay $5 to enter the jewel of the county park system at the southern tip of Pinellas County.

"Are you serious, man?" scoffed Reilly, 45, of St. Petersburg.

Reilly regularly walks her dogs there. Now it will come at a price.

"I could see a dollar, like the Skyway," Reilly said.

Besides Fort De Soto, which gets 2.8 million visitors a year, Pinellas also started charging a $5 parking fee Tuesday at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs.

The county imposed the fees to stave off deeper cuts to parks. From 2005 to 2011, a staff of 81 was cut to 36 at Fort De Soto, for example. Complaints about repairs and rubbish jumped at the 1,136-acre park, the county's largest.

Other regular visitors Tuesday said they understood the fee. Large parks elsewhere charge fees, like the $8 per vehicle with multiple people at state-run Honeymoon Island.

"You've got expenses for maintaining it, mainly staff hours," said Tom Merrick, 72, of Tierra Verde, who visits Fort De Soto several days a week.

A big park that he liked in Delaware also charged, he said, adding that Fort De Soto is worth it.

"I feel like the park is in great shape," Merrick said.

Many of the 378 motorists — a slow day by park standards — paid without complaint Tuesday. One man cursed at park workers and made a U-turn out of the park, said Lyle Fowler, south county operations manager for Pinellas parks.

People can buy a $75 annual pass, which is discounted for seniors to $55 and the needy to $37.50. The $5 fee can be credited toward an annual pass weekdays at the park's office.

The county already sold more than 200 annual passes just at the Fort De Soto office, but Pinellas has projected annual attendance to fall due to the fee.

Chilly weather also meant a slow day at Fred Howard Park, where three of 12 automated pay stations have been installed. So far, one is on the causeway and two are on the beach. The rest should arrive by Jan. 17, said Kathy Swain, operations manager for north county parks. People who stay on the mainland won't pay the fee.

While there from 8 a.m. to noon, Swain saw just two windsurfers and a few birdwatchers. No one seemed to balk at the fee, she said.

Scofflaws face $30 parking tickets. Bicyclists and pedestrians are exempt, and people buying boat parking or camping passes are covered, too.

The county already assessed parking fees using meters at smaller, beachfront parks.

But Fort De Soto has a national reputation for beautiful beaches that were free once people paid state tolls on the Pinellas Bayway.

Now there's a third, county-run toll booth.

"That's kind of ridiculous," Reilly said.

Times staff writer Lorri Helfand contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.

Visitors swallow first day of $5 fee at Fort De Soto in Pinellas 01/03/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 11:05pm]
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