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Fort Island dock to help boaters

Boaters tired of having to plunge into the Gulf to pull their boat onto the ramp at the Fort Island Gulf Beach can take heart. The county Division of Parks and Recreation is just weeks away from opening bids on a project that calls for a 146-foot wooden dock to be built alongside the existing boat ramp at the park.

The dock will stretch about half the length of a football field toward Shell Island and will make it easier for boaters to launch and retrieve their crafts.

The new dock requires that length to accommodate boats in the shallow water both at high and low tides, county Parks Director Karen Barnett said Tuesday.

The low water level causes problems for boaters, who often must swim out to their boats after launching them or splash into the shore to get their vehicle and trailer ready. This has led to lines of boaters waiting to launch or retrieve their boats.

"It's not unusual to see 50 boats and trailers out there," she said. "There's nowhere for them to tie up" while they wait for someone to move their trailer to the ramp.

Bids for the dock project will be opened June 20. The work is scheduled to take 120 days.

Barnett said she expects to see fishers casting their lines off the dock, although county officials hope that most of the anglers will use the fishing pier planned for Crystal River at the Fort Island Trail Park.

The first phase of that project, which will be built several miles east of the beach near the confluence of the Salt and Crystal rivers, will be two boat ramps, parking for about 50 cars and trailers and the first set of restrooms. Construction on at least a portion of those facilities is to begin as early as this fall.

The boat ramps are considered a priority project.

"There is such a need to try to relieve some of the traffic off Kings Bay," she said.

Construction on the fishing pier at that park is planned about two years from now. The master plan for the park includes two covered picnic pavilions, a playground, another set of restrooms and the conversion of an existing house on the property to the office of the Parks and Recreation Division.

"This is going to accommodate a lot of needs for a great many tourists as well as for our own residents," Barnett said.

No master plan yet exists for the Fort Island Gulf Beach because county departments face as much as a 10 percent reduction in their budgets this year. For Parks and Recreation, that amounts to about $100,000.

"We have 47 recreational facilities and do groundskeeping for over 80," Barnett said. "We've got to set our priorities and, as important as the new areas are, we can't overlook the existing areas."