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Going to Fort De Soto Park could soon cost $8 a car

Visitors to Fort De Soto Park on Monday would have paid less than a dollar in tolls. Under the county’s proposal, each carload would pay $8 to cover park expenses.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Visitors to Fort De Soto Park on Monday would have paid less than a dollar in tolls. Under the county’s proposal, each carload would pay $8 to cover park expenses.

A proposed entrance fee into Fort De Soto Park is back to life, and bigger than ever.

A proposal to charge $8 per carload to enter the park, nationally renowned for its beaches, will be discussed today by the Pinellas County Commission. The admission charge is part of a measure that would add $3 entrance fees to regional parks and attractions, too.

The 1,136-acre Fort De Soto is now free after visitors pay up to 85 cents in state highway tolls.

A similar proposal at $5 was canned last year after it generated criticism and had less organized support among environmentalists.

This year, park and preserve supporters have organized to advocate for park fees, hoping to stave off deep cuts to staffing and maintenance efforts without raising property taxes.

"Fantastic — I'm thrilled. This is what we have do," Lorraine Margeson, a St. Petersburg activist, said Monday.

The revenue could give the parks system stability from reductions, she said.

Amid cuts last year, many park bathrooms were shuttered. Looming cuts this year prompted a county proposal to close parks two days a week.

"I think most people are starting to realize … their park might be closed some days out of the week," said Dave Kandz, chairman of St. Petersburg Audubon's conservation committee. "You go to Fort De Soto, you might be looking for a tree instead of a porcelain god."

Despite environmentalists' support this year, some locals were peeved Monday at an $8 charge.

"Taking that much is kind of ridiculous — $8 to get in after I've paid 85 cents? With the way the economy is, that is the way people are going to look at it," said Clayton Rose, 23, of St. Petersburg.

"Why sit here and pay $8? That's going to make people stay away," said his friend, Josh Washburn, 26.

But nearby, Lisa Tuttle, 48, of Clearwater, said her native Connecticut already charges admission to parks so she'd accept paying $8 to go to Fort De Soto.

"It's pretty pristine," Tuttle said.

The $8 proposal is higher than expected, and more than commissioners have ever discussed.

The fees overall could generate $3.5 million. At $5 a car, the county estimated last year it would take in $1.7 million a year from Fort De Soto.

"A lot of that is really going to depend on how the far the board wants to take it," said Paul Cozzie, the county's director of culture, leisure and recreation.

Details on how the fee would be collected remain uncertain. For example, repeatedly charging campers wouldn't seem fair, Cozzie said. It also seems like a carload charge could spell trouble for parents planning children's birthday parties or other social events at the park.

The Pinellas proposal is modeled after fees at state-run Honeymoon Island in Dunedin, which charges $8 a carload. Single-occupant vehicles are $4, and young children are free.

At Honeymoon Island, one of the state's most popular parks, attendance has fallen 15 percent since the fee was raised from $5 to $8 in July. State officials blame a dismal showing during the unusually cold winter for the decrease.

In addition to the Fort De Soto fee, county officials are proposing a $3 fee to enter the county's regional parks, preserves and at least the beach at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs.

The county also is considering a $75 annual pass to enter all parks. Bicyclists and pedestrians would be exempt from fees. Also, boat ramp parking would be included.

But a fee at Fred Howard Park is likely to spark dispute. Though Cozzie notes Hillsborough and Pasco residents go there, Tarpon Springs residents got angry last year over the proposal to charge them for something they consider a community park.

The City Commission has already voted against any fee there this year. "It's one that will hurt us as a city because some of those people coming to the park frequent other businesses," said Tarpon Springs Mayor David Archie. "A fee will not only be costly to residents, but to the business community, too."

Times staff writer Demorris A. Lee contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Going to Fort De Soto Park could soon cost $8 a car 05/10/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 10, 2010 11:53pm]
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