Board urges changes to parks

By Steve Estes

A county advisory board plans to suggest that several recreational facilities on Big Pine Key make some changes.

The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board last month agreed that it’s time some of the park facilities on Big Pine got some attention and plan to make that suggestion to the Board of County Commissioners during the next meeting of the advisory group on Big Pine Key.

According to board chairman Steve Miller, the group plans to suggest that the county decommission all of the active equipment at Palm Villa Park pocket park and convert the asset to passive use only.

That small park off Wilder Road currently has a complement of playground equipment that is beginning to deteriorate.

“The equipment is old and in bad shape,” said Miller.

He said the board will suggest that the playground equipment be removed and the park be made available for more passive pursuits.

“That park gets so little use that it doesn’t make sense to renovate or replace the equipment there,” said Miller.

That’s not the case with Blue Heron park, however, where the board plans to suggest that some major maintenance be done to the buildings, basketball court and playground equipment located there.

The county earlier this year turned Blue Heron over to the Boys and Girls Club of the Florida Keys to establish a teen center. The club already runs an extensive after-school and vacation child care program at a county-owned property on South Street next door to Watson Field.

The plan is to separate the younger kids from the teenagers, keeping the youth at the South Street facility and allowing the teen program to branch out at Blue Heron.

The Big Pine Athletic Association ran an after-school and summer child care program at Blue Heron for years, but declining participation resulted in the program shutting down last year as most kids in the local area moved to the Boys and Girls Club program.

Some of the renovations the board will suggest include refurbishment of the basketball courts and volleyball area at Blue Heron, as well as replacing some shade trees and structures that have been removed over the last few years.

The advisory group also plans to suggest that the Big Pine Community Park extend its operating hours during the summer. The park opens at 7:30 a.m. daily and closes at 8:30 p.m.

Miller said the board would like to see those hours extended in the summer months as the days get longer and natural light is available.

That’s not the only suggestion the parks board has for the community park.

Miller says that the group has also asked county staff to begin researching what it would take to establish a beach and fishing pier at the community park.

He said they understand it will be a years-long process before anything could come from such a suggestion. The county would have to obtain permission from the US Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Environmental Protection among other outside agencies.

Paying for the facility might be possible through the use of Tourist Development Council funds. The TDC is the recipient of transient bed taxes, and a small portion of those tax dollars goes toward the funding of capital projects, including beaches and piers.

Miller says the beach might be a way to entice more visitors to spend more time on Big Pine instead of just driving through to the beaches in Key West, and would provide something for the local residents that isn’t available right now. The nearest public beach is Veteran’s Park, east of Big Pine on US 1. And it’s a small facility.

“We could use the pier to outline the beach and also to help keep the sand in place,” said Miller.

Those discussions are in the very preliminary stages.

Miller said the parks board also has one more suggestion for recreational facilities on Big Pine—the establishment of a boat ramp and park at the old swimming hole at the island’s west end.

The old swimming hole is owned by Florida DEP and is closed to public use. The county had floated ideas to use the land several years ago but dropped them when money became an issue with a soft economy.

“We have more boaters per capita than any place in the state,” said Miller. “We need more public ramps readily accessible to our locals and tourists, again that would entice the visitors to stay longer on Big Pine and sample some of what we have to offer.”

County officials decided last month to spend much of next year’s boating improvement fund budget on refurbishing local boat ramps, including minor renovations at the launch ramp on State Rd 4A on Little Torch. They also decided to do more extensive renovations at the launch ramp at the end of Blimp Road on Cudjoe Key and at the launch ramp at the end of Koehn Avenue on Big Pine Key.

Miller said that the old swimming hole property was once well used by locals as a gathering place to enjoy the local waters. Years ago, it was the staging area for the rehabilitation of a school of stranded pilot whales. After the stranding event, no local or state agency would cough up the money to do an environmental clean up of the waters where the whales had resided for months so the area was closed to the public.

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