Park board to discuss changes to community park, swim hole

By Steve Estes

The county Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meets Monday night at the Big Pine Community Park, and board members plan to float some big ideas for changes to the waterfront personality of Big Pine Key.

They also plan to ask the county’s Public Works Department to step up maintenance needs at a couple of local park facilities.

Taking care of the maintenance issues, the board will ask that public works finish the decommissioning of the pocket park on Palm Villa.

“The equipment there is just old and not in very good shape,” said Steve Miller, board chairman. “The park rarely gets used so it makes sense just to take out the old playground equipment and turn the park into a more passive use.”

Miller said that the board might suggest installing some shade structure or benches and such, but nothing major.

He said the board also intends to ask for a little more priority in addressing maintenance issues at Blue Heron Park.

In recent years, rather than fix equipment or repair pavilions, county workers have simply removed the items or structures.

At one time Blue Heron was used much more extensively than it is today. The facility housed an after-school care program during the school year and a summer care program out of school time.

But both of those programs, run by the Big Pine Athletic Association, have since disappeared and now the park is used sporadically for local events like the Moose Lodge Fun Fest for kids and the annual Easter Egg Hunt.

Most recently, the facility has been taken over by the Big Pine Boys and Girls Club in an attempt to turn it into a teen center for the older youth in that program.

“We need to get together a list of the maintenance needs of that park and push public works to get them done,” said Miller.

And then come the larger ventures.

The board briefly discussed at its last quarterly meeting putting some big ticket items on Monday’s agenda in Big Pine. And they are definitely bigger tickets.

Miller said the board plans to ask county staff to do a feasibility study on developing a public beach at the waterfront in Big Pine Community Park.

He said he believes bed tax money from lodging taxes can pay for most of the cost. What he wants is a blueprint from staff on what it would take, what permits would be needed from what agency, and a general cost estimate to work from to make a decision whether to push the recommendation on to the Board of County Commissioners.

During its inception, plans for the park at the end of Sands Road on Big Pine Key included a second phase. That phase was the development of a pier out over the water.

As money and momentum dried up, the second phase of the project slowly phased out of consciousness.

“We are a waterfront community,” said Miller. “Yet we have limited public access to the water.”

But the advisory board won’t be done there, he says.

Because Monroe County has the highest per capita boat registrations in the state, more boat ramps would always be welcome, he said.

In that vein, the board plans to discuss asking county staff to study the feasibility of developing a boat ramp at the old swimming hole at the west end of Big Pine along US 1.

How to utilize that property has been in discussion for years. The area was open as a locals swimming hole for decades until the area was used as a rehabilitation site for a pod of stranded pilot whales.

After the whales were released, the state didn’t commit money to clean the water and the Department of Environmental Protection, which owns the site, closed it to the public.

At one point, the area was managed by the Key Deer Refuge, then by Florida Department of Transportation, then by DEP through the Overseas Heritage Trail, and now by the State Parks Service.

Monroe County has tried a couple of times, half-heartedly, to acquire a lease on the property and take over management duties, even designing a passive park there with scenic overlooks and informational kiosks about the natural environment of the area, a nature trail on a boardwalk, an observation tower for sunsets and a dinghy dock for use by the liveaboard community off the shore there and kayak and canoe launching.

Cost prevented any progress in that area for many years, but again, Miller believes that TDC money, through the bed-tax bricks and mortar project money, can be used to develop the park while county Boater Improvement Fund money could be used for the boat ramp.

The old swimming hole, which remains closed to public access, was delineated as a gateway park by the county during adoption of the US 1 Corridor Enhancement Plan, a plan that has done little but sit on a shelf since its approval by the BOCC nearly a decade ago.

According to TDC staff, capital projects money is available to the county at its request because the money goes to the county first. Big Pine is located in TDC District Two, which is the smallest of the five lodging districts in the Keys.

But due to development restrictions that are in place through much of the Lower Keys, District Two historically is not able to spend all of its capital projects money and in recent years had rolled a portion of the money into additional district-wide advertising.

The parks board is simply an advisory group to the BOCC. Any final decisions would have to be made by the BOCC.

The parks board is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday in the meeting room of the community center building at the park.

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