Swim hole gets approval

By Steve Estes

It appears as though the old swimming hole at the western entrance to Big Pine Key may finally be on a path to re-open for public use.

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners Tuesday agreed to authorize up to $1 million from future capital funds to develop a passive park on the site that has been closed to public use for nearly a decade. The land is owned by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the BOCC agreed to pursue a lease from that state agency for the site, clearing the way for actual design work to begin at the location.

But money from county coffers may never be an issue for the old swimming hole project. County staff is currently working on state grants through the Overseas Heritage Trail scenic overlook program that would probably cover the entire cost of the project.

But if that falls short, there is Tourist Development Council bricks and mortar project money available for district two that could fill in the blanks.

The next step is to acquire the lease from DEP so real planing can start on the project, says Trish Smith, county transportation planner. Once the lease is in place, the design on the project can go forward and it then gets turned over to the county’s project management team for insertion into the development que.

There have been several designs floated for the old swimming hole property over the years, the most recent of which includes several amenities.

County officials are keen on maintaining the water access the site provides, so part of the plans are for kayak and canoe launches and possibly a dingy dock for use by the liveaboard boaters in Newfound Harbor.

If current rough plans remain in place, the site will also boast an observation tower for viewing and educational kiosks that will outline what people are seeing in the waters in front of them.

The area used to be a popular gathering spot for locals when it was managed by the local Key Deer Refuge.

But residents lost use of the site after a successful rehabilitation effort for a pod of stranded pilot whales about a decade ago. DEP, concerned with the water quality issues on the site after the ilot whales spent months in the old borrow pit there, closed the area to public use.

It was reopened briefly a few years ago when the bike path was being built, but has since been gated and padlocked.

Other parts of the old plans for the site include a boardwalk through the foliage surrounding the site with educational placards detailing the host of native plants that grow on the site.

Designers have had issues with vehicular access to the area, which is located on the ocean side of Big Pine directly across the street from Strike Zone Charters on the west end. Part of the access issues stemmed from sight distance issues with the curve that enters Big Pine northbound on US 1 on that end of the island. But those concerns were addressed by traffic planners.

Smith says she is currently in the middle of a grant cycle for overlook monies, so it shouldn’t be that long before money to develop the site comes available. From there, it will depend on how long it takes project management to design, bid and build the project.

That area was delineated in the Liveable Communi-Keys plan for Big Pine Key as part of the Corridor Enhancement Plan as an entrance way park for the island when that document was developed nearly a decade ago.

Without state money, “The $1 million is enough to make that site usable as a passive park for the residents of Big Pine Key and the visitors that use the trail,” said County Engineer Kevin Wilson.

DEP also owns the vacant land on the north side of US 1 at that location, but there are currently no plans in the works for that piece of property.

The LCP also suggested that another gateway park be developed on the east end of Big Pine Key where the triangle is now between the end of the curve on US 1 and Avenue A, but no mention has been made of that facility since the plan was adopted eight years ago.

The site might be underway in a year.

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