County to look at scenic stops
Two considered on Big Pine Key

By Steve Estes

Next month, the Monroe Board of County Commissioners will hear about plans to begin the process of building scenic overlooks along the Overseas Heritage Trail.

And two of the areas where overlooks are being contemplated are on Big Pine Key.

The first is at the sight of the old swimming hole on the island’s west end.

Before about 10 years ago, the area was a popular meeting place for locals as an impromptu swimming hole and picnic area. It also long served as a dinghy landing for the liveaboard boaters moored in North Pine Channel, as well as a shelter from storms for those same boaters’ vessels.

Then came the stranding of a pod of pilot whales off the shores of Big Pine Key and the use of the old swimming hole as a rehabilitation site for those whales. The depth of the water, easy access from the highway, ample parking and controlled access points by land and water made the site ideal for the rehabilitation effort.

The land was also owned by a state agency, so permission wasn’t an issue. The rehabilitation effort spanned nearly a year and after the whales were released at sea, the state Department of Environmental Protection was supposed to pay to have the waters cleaned of the massive amounts of whale feces dumped during the rehab effort. But that never happened and instead, DEP closed the area to vehicular traffic.

At one point, the county had management authority for the area, then maintenance was turned over to the National Key Deer Refuge, which then turned over maintenance to DEP with the advent of the first miles of Heritage Trail on Big Pine Key.

And for the time since the whale stranding event, the area has, for the most part, been closed for public use.

There was an effort about five years ago to build a trailhead for the OHT on the site, but with changes in state agencies and declining budgets, that effort died. County staff went so far as to sketch up a site plan for the area that included public restrooms, educational kiosks touting the marine life to be found in the waters, an observation tower for sunset viewing and a boardwalk through the natural areas.

But now there is grant money available to aid the county in constructing scenic overlooks along the newly designated Florida Keys Scenic Highway, and one of the proposed sites is the old swimming hole.

One of the other proposed sites is at the Big Pine Key Community Park where a proposal is being floated to build a pier off the shoreline extending into Bogie Channel. The park became part of the Heritage Trail by default really when the county built bike paths to the facility that connected directly to the trail along US 1 via the access road on Avenue A.

The pier was originally part of Phase Two of the park project, a phase that never got off the drawing board, due primarily to the lengthy and tangled permitting process the pier would have had to go through with state and federal agencies.

One of the sticking points for county officials during the years-long discussion about what could be done with the swimming hole property has been who would pay to maintain the property, and from where the money would come to build a passive park.

There is a possibility that maintenance money could come from the coffers of the Tourist Development Council since the park would be readily available to visitors as well as locals. There is also TDC bricks and mortar project money in district two, which encompasses Stock Island through Big Pine that could go into such a project.

For the past several years, TDC District Two Advisory Council has been rolling bricks and mortar money back into advertising budgets because no one could find viable uses for the money. At one point, there was more than $400,000 in the capital projects budget.

That practice was called into question last month by County Commissioner Danny Kolhage and Mayor George Neugent and they may be seeking an end to that practice.

Neugent said one of the reasons to end that practice was to be able to put money into some quality-of-life projects in the Lower Keys that will benefit both residents and tourists.

One further problem dogging the swimming hole proposal is that the state DEP no longer owns the land. During recent reshuffling of state agencies, the land was turned over to the Parks Service as part of the Heritage Trail State Park. Before the county could do anything with the site, it would have to obtain a lease from the state for management authority. And that requires a commitment for maintenance.

The BOCC is expected to hear the proposals at the February 20 meeting.

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